Consent of the Networked
How Googledom, Facebookistan, and other sovereigns of cyberspace are handling their unprecedented power.
If Google was not going to obey censorship orders and respect Chinese law, officials said, then good riddance. Yet in the end, Google was not fully banned from China. It retained its license to keep a business presence in China and continued some activities not related to search: Android mobile phone operating system development and support, advertising sales, plus research and development for future products.
The reason has to do with Google’s own Chinese constituency: people who need access to at least some of Google’s products and services to do their jobs and build their own innovative businesses. As the Chinese blogger Michael Anti commented to me wryly at the time, “Google is much more popular in China than the USA.” Almost no Chinese citizens consider themselves stakeholders or constituents of the United States. But Google has many Chinese constituents. They are, in effect, digital residents of Googledom: a global community of people who rely on certain Google services.
Trust but Verify
In late 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen (who had just left the State Department policy planning staff in the summer of 2010 to run Google’s new policy think tank) published an article in Foreign Affairs outlining their geopolitical vision for a digitally networked world. “Democratic governments,” they wrote, “have an obligation to join together while also respecting the power of the private and nonprofit sectors to bring about change.” They warned against overregulation of Internet companies, lest their greatest value to citizens be stifled.
That is certainly a valid concern. But if the sovereigns of cyberspace are to avoid counterproductive government interference, they must do more to bolster their own legitimacy and earn the trust of their constituents. The first step is to make commitments—akin to the constitutional commitments of governments—to govern their digital worlds in a way that is compatible with the same universal principles on freedom of expression, assembly and privacy that make democracy possible.
As with physical sovereigns, the sovereigns of cyberspace must be held accountable to their commitments in order to be credible, and ultimately to be successful. As Ronald Reagan once put it: “trust but verify.” They must be much more transparent about how their policies are made and how they conduct their relationships with governments; they must open themselves up to enough external scrutiny to verify that they are not deceiving people; and finally, they must engage constructively and systematically with users and customers who harbor concerns.
If the sovereigns of cyberspace do these things, the public will trust them—and that confidence will have been well-earned. This trust will in turn give them legitimacy to act as a welcome counterweight to government sovereignty: holding one another in check, making the abuse of power—be it by the sovereigns of cyberspace or the sovereigns of the physical world—more difficult.
Adapted with permission from Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom, by Rebecca MacKinnon. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.