Issues with e-book lending may loom large over the 2012 American Library Association Annual Conference in Anaheim, CA, but Rebecca Mackinnon’s opening keynote focused on another aspect of the digital revolution important to librarians: privacy.
MacKinnon, a former bureau chief for CNN in Beijing, Internet policy specialist, and author of the book Consent of the Networked (Basic Books) thanked librarians for their contributions to the “world of knowledge,” and began her talk with a dark example of the how the Internet has changed the world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she said, when East Germans were allowed to access the files their government had kept on them, many were stunned to learn that their neighbors and family members had informed on them. Decades later, in Egypt after the fall of Mubarak, when activists were able to access their government files the nature of such surveillance had changed.
“They found reams and reams of e-mail exchanges,” MacKinnon said, “cell phone text messages, Skype conversations they thought had been secure, information that had been uploaded and downloaded on computers that had been captured by Internet Service Providers and transferred to the secret police.” And, activists also found a contract with a British company to assist the Mubarak government in this kind of tracking. “The point is, should, or can, technology be apolitical?” MacKinnon said, and what responsibility do technologists and technology companies have to understand the “political implications” of what they do. “The relationship between citizens and government is increasingly mediated through the Internet,” she explained, “so how do we ensure this layer of technology we depend upon for our business, our education, our love lives, and our political lives, remains neutral?”
For all the talk of the positive aspects the Internet has brought, for example, "the Facebook Revolution" and the Arab Spring, MacKinnon spoke of the disturbing way our Internet world is developing, not only in nation’s facing revolutions, but in the U.S. as well, from warrantless wiretapping to the rise of companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple, which Mackinnon calls the “sovereigns of cyberspace,” for the way they collect vast amounts of private data without any kind of protections, whether from the potential for government to monitor behavior to censorship issues, from the shutting down of Facebook pages, for example, or in the way Apple has near total control over what apps can be sold in its app store.
In pointing out the complexity of the issue, MacKinnon referenced Wikileaks and how, under pressure from the U.S. government Amazon, which had hosted Wikileaks, simply cut the site off after its release of diplomatic cables. However one feels about WIkileaks, she said, that is a troubling sign. “When controversial speech can be taken offline through pressures on private intermediaries without any kind of due process,” MacKinnon said, “That is something we need to be concerned about.”
She also referenced troubling legislative efforts, including one that recently found librarians and publishers on different sides: SOPA (The Stop Online Piracy Act.) MacKinnon said she was not one to say there should be no copyright, but she assailed SOPA, because it would have made Internet networks and other related services responsible for monitoring activities of its users for potentially infringing behavior, lest they be prosecuted. That, she said, would cause private networks to “pre-censor” or otherwise filter their networks. She recalled that in China, the largest network would not let her even upload and publish an article about a popular dissident there, and recalled how,m in 2009, she attended a ceremony where Internet Chinese Internet companies were rewarded for their vigilance in policing their networks. She said laws like SOPA in the U.S. were dangerous.
In closing, MacKinnon urged librarians to be vigilant, andkeep fighting for their core values. She said there was cause for optimism, such as transparency reports about takedown requests published by Google, but said there was still a long way to go. She likened the need for a privacy protection movement to the environmental movement, saying we are just past “earth day in 1970” in terms of where the privacy movement is.