• Great articles on other sites
  • RSS Great articles on other sites

  • International - Written by on Monday, February 27, 2012 10:02 - 0 Comments

    Tech giants have power to be political masters as well as our web ones

    Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tech giants have power to be political masters as well as our web ones” was written by John Naughton, for The Observer on Sunday 26th February 2012 00.04 UTC

    Among all the excited commentary about the role of social networking in the Arab spring, one uncomfortable fact stands out: internet censorship and surveillance are alive and well in Tunisia and Egypt. They’re being orchestrated and supervised by (mostly) different people, of course, but the intermediaries implementing it are the same as before: western technology companies that are apparently prepared to sell filtering and surveillance kit to anyone with a government purchase order. And the result is the same as before: a webpage saying “Sorry: the page you requested does not exist”. Except that some regimes exclude the apology.

    As the internet becomes more central to our lives, the power of the commercial companies that mediate citizens’ interactions with one another and with the state increases with every passing day. The Arab spring appeared to be a case study of this, but we got a brief glimpse of it here during last year’s outbreak of recreational looting, when the prime minister irritably flirted with the idea of shutting down social networks and the BlackBerry instant-messaging service. The thought that this might be an infringement of our civil rights doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind.

    It is, however, very much on the mind of Rebecca MacKinnon, a leading expert on internet censorship. She’s best known for her work on Chinese internet regulation in which she demonstrated how an intelligent authoritarian regime can not only survive but thrive in the internet age with the help of domestic and multinational corporations. She has now widened her focus in a remarkable new book, Consent of the Networked, in which she airs her worries about “what will happen to the internet – and more broadly to the future of freedom in an internet age – if the world’s democracies develop a habit of tackling problems in a shortsighted, kneejerk manner, without considering the long-term domestic and global consequences”.

    One of the central ideas in MacKinnon’s book is the concept of what she calls “sovereigns of cyberspace”, – companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon that now exercise the kinds of power that were hitherto reserved for real “sovereigns” – governments operating within national jurisdictions. Witness, for example, the way in which Amazon arbitrarily removed Wikileaks from its cloud computing servers without any justification that would have withstood a First Amendment legal challenge ; or the way that Facebook took down a page used by Egyptian activists to co-ordinate protests on the grounds that they had violated the company’s rules by not using their real names.

    The powers to curtail people’s freedom of speech in this way were traditionally reserved for governments which – in democracies at least – theoretically derived their legitimacy from John Locke’s notion of “the consent of the governed”. (It’s worth saying that some political scientists balk at the notion of companies as “sovereigns”. After all, Zuckerberg can’t lock you up, whereas a real government could.) The question MacKinnon raises is: in what sense do Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google enjoy the consent of the networked?

    The lawyer’s answer is that consent was obtained by agreeing to the terms and conditions when people signed up. If you don’t like the rules then you don’t have to join. That might work in contract law – and indeed was probably OK when these companies first opened for business. But it now looks a bit threadbare because of the way in which the platforms of cloud-based companies morphed imperceptibly into public spaces in which people expressed their opinions and values. So we’ve ended up in a situation in which we expect the norms of Speaker’s Corner to apply in Westfield, even though a shopping mall is not a public space.

    Still, we are where we are. Facebook is now a semi-public space in which political and other potentially controversial views are expressed. Amazon is well on its way to becoming a dominant publisher. Google has the power to render any website effectively invisible. Given that freedom of speech is important for democracy, that means that these giant companies are now effectively part of our political system. But the power they wield is, as Stanley Baldwin famously observed of the British popular press in the 1920s, “the harlot’s prerogative” – power without responsibility.

    The Leveson inquiry demonstrates that the problem so vividly described by Baldwin still endures in the offline world. Rebecca MacKinnon’s book signals that it is manifest in a potentially more serious form in cyberspace.

    Which is why we can expect Consent of the Networked to find its way on to reading lists in political science. And it may also be why the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard has just launched a course on politics and the internet .

    guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

    Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.

    Image credit: Ian Murphy, Creative Commons

    submit to reddit

    Comments are closed.


    Get our 'Best of the Week' newsletter on Fridays

    Just the most important stories, one email a week.

    Email address:


  • Enterprise IT stories

    • Super funds close to dumping $250m IT revamp facepalm2

      If you have even a skin deep awareness of the structure of Australia’s superannuation industry, you’ll be aware that much of the underlying infrastructure used by many of the nation’s major funds is provided by a centralised group, Superpartners. One of the group’s main projects in recent years has been to dramatically update and modernise its IT platform — its version of a core banking platform overhaul. Unfortunately, the $250 million project has not precisely been going well.

    • Qld’s Grant joins analyst firm IBRS peter-grant

      This week it emerged that Peter Grant, the two-time former Queensland Whole of Government CIO (pictured), has joined well-regarded analyst firm Intelligent Business Research Services (IBRS). We’ve long had a high regard for IBRS, and so it’s fantastic to see such an experienced executive join its ranks.

    • Westpac dumps desk phones for Samsung Android mobiles samsung-galaxy-ace-3

      The era of troublesome desk phones tied to physical locations is gradually coming to an end in many workplaces, with mobile phones becoming increasingly popular as organisations’ main method of voice telecommunications. But some groups are more advanced than others when it comes to adoption of the trend. One of those is Westpac.

    • Ministers’ cloud approval lasted just a year reverse

      Remember how twelve months ago, the Federal Government released a new cloud computing security and privacy directive which required departments and agencies to explicitly acquire the approval of the Attorney-General and the relevant portfolio minister before government data containing private information could be stored in offshore facilities? Remember how the policy was strongly criticised by Microsoft, Government CIOs and Delimiter? Well, it looks like the policy is about to be reversed.

    • WA Govt can’t fund school IT upgrades oops key

      In news from The Department of Disturbing Facts, iTNews revealed late last week that Western Australia’s Department of Education has run out of money halfway through the deployment of new fundamental IT infrastructure to the state’s schools.

    • Turnbull outlines Govt ICT vision turnbull-5

      Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has published an extensive article arguing that the Federal Government needed to do a better job of connecting with Australians via digital channels and that public sector IT projects needn’t cost the huge amounts that some have in the past.

    • NZ Govt pushes hard into cloud zealand

      New Zealand’s national Government announced a whole of government contract this morning for what it terms ‘Office Productivity as a Service’ services. This includes email and calendaring services, as well as file-sharing, mobility, instant messaging and collaboration services. The contract complements two existing contracts — Desktop as a Service and Enterprise Content Management as a Service.

    • CommBank reveals Harte’s replacement whiteing

      The Commonwealth Bank of Australia has promoted an internal executive who joined the bank in September after a lengthy career at petroleum giant VP and IT services group Accenture to replace its outgoing chief information officer Michael Harte, who announced in early May that he would leave the bank.

    • Jeff Smith quits Suncorp for IBM jeffsmith4

      Second-tier Australian bank and financial services group Suncorp today announced that its long-serving top technology executive Jeff Smith would leave to take up a senior role with IBM in the United States, in an announcement which marks the end of an era for the nation’s banking IT sector.

    • Small business missing the mobile, social, cloud revolution iphone-stock

      Most companies that live and breathe the online revolution are not tech startups, but smart smaller firms that use online tools to run their core business better: to cut costs, reach customers and suppliers, innovate and get more control. Many others, however, are falling behind, according to a new Grattan Institute discussion paper.

  • Blog, Enterprise IT - Jul 5, 2014 13:53 - 0 Comments

    Super funds close to dumping $250m IT revamp

    More In Enterprise IT


    Blog, Telecommunications - Jul 5, 2014 12:12 - 0 Comments

    What should the ACCC’s role be in guiding infrastructure spending?

    More In Telecommunications


    Analysis, Industry, Internet - Jun 23, 2014 10:33 - 0 Comments

    ‘Google Schmoogle’ – how Yellow Pages got it so wrong

    More In Industry


    Blog, Digital Rights - Jun 30, 2014 22:24 - 0 Comments

    Will Netflix launch in Australia, or not?

    More In Digital Rights