The prevailing wisdom that “technology created by innovative companies will set us all free” is anything but reality says Rebecca MacKinnon, an Internet freedom activist that spoke at TED Global on Tuesday in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Opening her remarks by contrasting Apple’s famous “1984” ad, in which the technology giant asserts its role as an agent of empowerment, with the company’s controversial removals from the app store, MacKinnon went on to describe an Internet increasingly in need of a new system of checks and balances.
That need comes from the growing power that corporations wield on the Internet, and in turn, their ability to shape what we can and can’t do in our digital lives, MacKinnon said.
The problem often asserts itself most visibly abroad, for instance in China, where Internet companies are awarded “Self-Discipline Awards” for conforming to the nation’s censorship policies. And while that problem may be seen as a Great Firewall of China issue, she notes that it’s often western technology that enables the regime to enforce its restrictions.
She also points to post-revolution monitoring and restricted access to certain sites in Egypt and Tunisia. “Even in democratic society we don’t have good answers how to balance the need for security on one hand and the protection of free speech on the other in our digital networks,” she said.
In response, MacKinnon believes that the citizens of the Internet need to take a more active role in pressuring corporations and the government to preserve free speech. She said, “Each of us has a vital role to play in building a world in which the government and technology serve the world’s people and not the other way around.”
MacKinnon has a book on the subject entitled “Consent of the Networked: A Citizen’s Guide to the Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom” due out early next year. In the meantime, here’s her talk from TED Global:MORE