Rebecca MacKinnon: Let's take back the Internet!

Recorded atJuly 12, 2011
EventTEDGlobal 2011
Duration (min:sec)14:31
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute160.92 slow
Readability (FK)25.88 very difficult
SpeakerRebecca MacKinnon
CountryUnited States of America
Occupationreporter, journalist
DescriptionAmerican activist and journalist

Official TED page for this talk


In this powerful talk from TEDGlobal, Rebecca MacKinnon describes the expanding struggle for freedom and control in cyberspace, and asks: How do we design the next phase of the Internet with accountability and freedom at its core, rather than control? She believes the internet is headed for a "Magna Carta" moment when citizens around the world demand that their governments protect free speech and their right to connection.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:15 So I begin with an advertisement
200:18 inspired by George Orwell
300:20 that Apple ran in 1984.
400:32 (Video) Big Brother: We are one people
500:34 with one will, one resolve,
600:37 one cause.
700:39 Our enemies shall talk themselves to death,
800:42 and we will fight them with their own confusion.
900:47 We shall prevail.
1000:52 Narrator: On January 24th,
1100:54 Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.
1200:57 And you'll see why 1984
1301:00 won't be like "1984."
1401:02 Rebecca MacKinnon: So the underlying message of this video
1501:05 remains very powerful even today.
1601:08 Technology created by innovative companies
1701:11 will set us all free.
1801:14 Fast-forward more than two decades:
1901:17 Apple launches the iPhone in China
2001:20 and censors the Dalai Lama out
2101:22 along with several other politically sensitive applications
2201:25 at the request of the Chinese government
2301:27 for its Chinese app store.
2401:29 The American political cartoonist
2501:31 Mark Fiore
2601:33 also had his satire application
2701:35 censored in the United States
2801:37 because some of Apple's staff
2901:39 were concerned it would be offensive to some groups.
3001:42 His app wasn't reinstated
3101:44 until he won the Pulitzer Prize.
3201:47 The German magazine Stern, a news magazine,
3301:50 had its app censored
3401:52 because the Apple nannies deemed it
3501:54 to be a little bit too racy for their users,
3601:57 and despite the fact that this magazine
3701:59 is perfectly legal for sale
3802:01 on newsstands throughout Germany.
3902:04 And more controversially, recently,
4002:06 Apple censored a Palestinian protest app
4102:09 after the Israeli government voiced concerns
4202:12 that it might be used to organize violent attacks.
4302:15 So here's the thing.
4402:17 We have a situation where private companies
4502:19 are applying censorship standards
4602:22 that are often quite arbitrary
4702:25 and generally more narrow
4802:27 than the free speech constitutional standards
4902:29 that we have in democracies.
5002:31 Or they're responding to censorship requests
5102:34 by authoritarian regimes
5202:36 that do not reflect consent of the governed.
5302:38 Or they're responding to requests and concerns
5402:41 by governments that have no jurisdiction
5502:45 over many, or most, of the users and viewers
5602:48 who are interacting with the content in question.
5702:51 So here's the situation.
5802:53 In a pre-Internet world,
5902:55 sovereignty over our physical freedoms,
6002:58 or lack thereof,
6103:00 was controlled almost entirely
6203:02 by nation-states.
6303:04 But now we have this new layer
6403:06 of private sovereignty
6503:08 in cyberspace.
6603:10 And their decisions about software coding,
6703:12 engineering, design, terms of service
6803:15 all act as a kind of law
6903:17 that shapes what we can and cannot do with our digital lives.
7003:21 And their sovereignties,
7103:23 cross-cutting, globally interlinked,
7203:25 can in some ways
7303:27 challenge the sovereignties of nation-states
7403:29 in very exciting ways,
7503:31 but sometimes also act
7603:33 to project and extend it
7703:35 at a time when control
7803:37 over what people can and cannot do
7903:39 with information
8003:41 has more effect than ever
8103:43 on the exercise of power
8203:45 in our physical world.
8303:48 After all, even the leader of the free world
8403:50 needs a little help from the sultan of Facebookistan
8503:53 if he wants to get reelected next year.
8603:56 And these platforms
8703:58 were certainly very helpful
8804:00 to activists in Tunisia and Egypt
8904:03 this past spring and beyond.
9004:05 As Wael Ghonim,
9104:08 the Google-Egyptian-executive by day,
9204:11 secret-Facebook-activist by night,
9304:13 famously said to CNN
9404:15 after Mubarak stepped down,
9504:17 "If you want to liberate a society,
9604:19 just give them the Internet."
9704:21 But overthrowing a government is one thing
9804:23 and building a stable democracy
9904:25 is a bit more complicated.
10004:27 On the left there's a photo taken by an Egyptian activist
10104:30 who was part of the storming
10204:32 of the Egyptian state security offices in March.
10304:35 And many of the agents
10404:37 shredded as many of the documents as they could
10504:39 and left them behind in piles.
10604:41 But some of the files were left behind intact,
10704:44 and activists, some of them,
10804:46 found their own surveillance dossiers
10904:49 full of transcripts of their email exchanges,
11004:52 their cellphone text message exchanges,
11104:54 even Skype conversations.
11204:56 And one activist actually found
11304:58 a contract from a Western company
11405:01 for the sale of surveillance technology
11505:03 to the Egyptian security forces.
11605:05 And Egyptian activists are assuming
11705:07 that these technologies for surveillance
11805:09 are still being used
11905:11 by the transitional authorities running the networks there.
12005:15 And in Tunisia, censorship actually began to return in May --
12105:18 not nearly as extensively
12205:20 as under President Ben Ali.
12305:23 But you'll see here a blocked page
12405:25 of what happens when you try to reach
12505:27 certain Facebook pages and some other websites
12605:29 that the transitional authorities
12705:31 have determined might incite violence.
12805:34 In protest over this,
12905:36 blogger Slim Amamou,
13005:38 who had been jailed under Ben Ali
13105:40 and then became part of the transitional government
13205:42 after the revolution,
13305:44 he resigned in protest from the cabinet.
13405:47 But there's been a lot of debate in Tunisia
13505:49 about how to handle this kind of problem.
13605:51 In fact, on Twitter,
13705:53 there were a number of people who were supportive of the revolution
13805:55 who said, "Well actually,
13905:57 we do want democracy and free expression,
14005:59 but there is some kinds of speech that need to be off-bounds
14106:02 because it's too violent and it might be destabilizing for our democracy.
14206:05 But the problem is,
14306:07 how do you decide who is in power to make these decisions
14406:10 and how do you make sure
14506:12 that they do not abuse their power?
14606:14 As Riadh Guerfali,
14706:16 the veteran digital activist from Tunisia,
14806:18 remarked over this incident,
14906:20 "Before, things were simple:
15006:22 you had the good guys on one side and the bad guys on the other.
15106:25 Today, things are a lot more subtle."
15206:28 Welcome to democracy, our Tunisian and Egyptian friends.
15306:31 The reality is
15406:33 that even in democratic societies today,
15506:36 we do not have good answers
15606:38 for how you balance the need
15706:40 for security and law enforcement on one hand
15806:43 and protection of civil liberties
15906:45 and free speech on the other
16006:47 in our digital networks.
16106:49 In fact, in the United States,
16206:51 whatever you may think of Julian Assange,
16306:54 even people who are not necessarily big fans of his
16406:57 are very concerned about the way
16506:59 in which the United States government and some companies have handled Wikileaks.
16607:02 Amazon webhosting dropped Wikileaks as a customer
16707:05 after receiving a complaint from U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman,
16807:09 despite the fact
16907:11 that Wikileaks had not been charged,
17007:13 let alone convicted,
17107:15 of any crime.
17207:18 So we assume
17307:20 that the Internet is a border-busting technology.
17407:23 This is a map of social networks worldwide,
17507:26 and certainly Facebook has conquered much of the world --
17607:29 which is either a good or a bad thing,
17707:31 depending on how you like
17807:33 the way Facebook manages its service.
17907:35 But borders do persist
18007:37 in some parts of cyberspace.
18107:39 In Brazil and Japan,
18207:41 it's for unique cultural and linguistic reasons.
18307:44 But if you look at China, Vietnam
18407:46 and a number of the former Soviet states,
18507:49 what's happening there is more troubling.
18607:51 You have a situation
18707:53 where the relationship between government
18807:55 and local social networking companies
18907:58 is creating a situation
19008:00 where, effectively,
19108:02 the empowering potential of these platforms
19208:05 is being constrained
19308:07 because of these relationships
19408:09 between companies and government.
19508:11 Now in China,
19608:13 you have the "great firewall," as it's well-known,
19708:15 that blocks Facebook
19808:17 and Twitter and now Google+
19908:20 and many of the other overseas websites.
20008:23 And that's done in part with the help from Western technology.
20108:26 But that's only half of the story.
20208:29 The other part of the story
20308:31 are requirements that the Chinese government places
20408:34 on all companies operating on the Chinese Internet,
20508:37 known as a system of self-discipline.
20608:39 In plain English, that means censorship and surveillance
20708:42 of their users.
20808:44 And this is a ceremony I actually attended in 2009
20908:47 where the Internet Society of China presented awards
21008:50 to the top 20 Chinese companies
21108:53 that are best at exercising self-discipline --
21208:56 i.e. policing their content.
21308:58 And Robin Li, CEO of Baidu,
21409:01 China's dominant search engine,
21509:03 was one of the recipients.
21609:06 In Russia, they do not generally block the Internet
21709:10 and directly censor websites.
21809:12 But this is a website called Rospil
21909:14 that's an anti-corruption site.
22009:16 And earlier this year,
22109:18 there was a troubling incident
22209:20 where people who had made donations to Rospil
22309:23 through a payments processing system
22409:25 called Yandex Money
22509:27 suddenly received threatening phone calls
22609:29 from members of a nationalist party
22709:32 who had obtained details
22809:34 about donors to Rospil
22909:37 through members of the security services
23009:39 who had somehow obtained this information
23109:42 from people at Yandex Money.
23209:45 This has a chilling effect
23309:47 on people's ability to use the Internet
23409:49 to hold government accountable.
23509:52 So we have a situation in the world today
23609:54 where in more and more countries
23709:56 the relationship between citizens and governments
23809:59 is mediated through the Internet,
23910:02 which is comprised primarily
24010:04 of privately owned and operated services.
24110:08 So the important question, I think,
24210:10 is not this debate over whether the Internet
24310:12 is going to help the good guys more than the bad guys.
24410:15 Of course, it's going to empower
24510:17 whoever is most skilled at using the technology
24610:20 and best understands the Internet
24710:22 in comparison with whoever their adversary is.
24810:25 The most urgent question we need to be asking today
24910:28 is how do we make sure
25010:30 that the Internet evolves
25110:32 in a citizen-centric manner.
25210:35 Because I think all of you will agree
25310:37 that the only legitimate purpose of government
25410:40 is to serve citizens,
25510:42 and I would argue
25610:44 that the only legitimate purpose of technology
25710:46 is to improve our lives,
25810:48 not to manipulate or enslave us.
25910:53 So the question is,
26010:55 we know how to hold government accountable.
26110:57 We don't necessarily always do it very well,
26210:59 but we have a sense of what the models are,
26311:02 politically and institutionally, to do that.
26411:04 How do you hold the sovereigns of cyberspace
26511:06 accountable to the public interest
26611:08 when most CEO's argue
26711:10 that their main obligation
26811:12 is to maximize shareholder profit?
26911:14 And government regulation
27011:16 often isn't helping all that much.
27111:18 You have situations, for instance, in France
27211:20 where president Sarkozy
27311:22 tells the CEO's of Internet companies,
27411:24 "We're the only legitimate representatives
27511:26 of the public interest."
27611:28 But then he goes and champions laws
27711:30 like the infamous "three-strikes" law
27811:32 that would disconnect citizens from the Internet
27911:34 for file sharing,
28011:36 which has been condemned by the U.N. Special Rapporteur
28111:39 on Freedom of Expression
28211:41 as being a disproportionate violation
28311:44 of citizens' right to communications,
28411:46 and has raised questions amongst civil society groups
28511:49 about whether
28611:51 some political representatives
28711:53 are more interested in preserving
28811:55 the interests of the entertainment industry
28911:58 than they are in defending the rights of their citizens.
29012:00 And here in the United Kingdom
29112:02 there's also concern over
29212:04 a law called the Digital Economy Act
29312:06 that's placing more onus
29412:08 on private intermediaries
29512:10 to police citizen behavior.
29612:14 So what we need to recognize
29712:16 is that if we want to have
29812:18 a citizen-centric Internet in the future,
29912:21 we need a broader and more sustained
30012:23 Internet freedom movement.
30112:25 After all, companies didn't stop polluting groundwater
30212:28 as a matter of course,
30312:31 or employing 10-year-olds as a matter of course,
30412:33 just because executives woke up one day
30512:35 and decided it was the right thing to do.
30612:38 It was the result of decades of sustained activism,
30712:40 shareholder advocacy
30812:42 and consumer advocacy.
30912:44 Similarly, governments don't enact
31012:48 intelligent environmental and labor laws
31112:51 just because politicians wake up one day.
31212:54 It's the result of very sustained and prolonged
31312:56 political activism
31412:58 that you get the right regulations,
31513:00 and that you get the right corporate behavior.
31613:02 We need to make the same approach
31713:04 with the Internet.
31813:06 We also are going to need
31913:08 political innovation.
32013:10 Eight hundred years ago, approximately,
32113:13 the barons of England decided
32213:15 that the Divine Right of Kings
32313:17 was no longer working for them so well,
32413:20 and they forced King John
32513:22 to sign the Magna Carta,
32613:25 which recognized
32713:27 that even the king
32813:29 who claimed to have divine rule
32913:32 still had to abide by a basic set of rules.
33013:35 This set off a cycle
33113:38 of what we can call political innovation,
33213:40 which led eventually to the idea of consent of the governed --
33313:43 which was implemented for the first time
33413:46 by that radical revolutionary government
33513:49 in America across the pond.
33613:52 So now we need to figure out
33713:55 how to build consent of the networked.
33813:57 And what does that look like?
33913:59 At the moment, we still don't know.
34014:02 But it's going to require innovation
34114:06 that's not only going to need
34214:09 to focus on politics,
34314:11 on geopolitics,
34414:13 but it's also going to need
34514:15 to deal with questions
34614:18 of business management, investor behavior,
34714:21 consumer choice
34814:23 and even software design and engineering.
34914:27 Each and every one of us has a vital part to play
35014:30 in building the kind of world
35114:33 in which government and technology
35214:36 serve the world's people and not the other way around.
35314:39 Thank you very much.
35414:41 (Applause)