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Shelf Life – Nov. 22

Consent of the Networked by Rebecca MacKinnon @SPL: 302.231 MacK

Pah, you think, what could possibly be said on the topic of internet freedom that adds to the conversation? In the cultural imagination the internet is vast, ethereal, beyond the ken. It is so distributed among us, it seems beyond the sway of hegemonic corporate or political interests or even physical structure. Consequently, it’s often thought of as the perfect social justice solution, when people think of the internet at all.

In a short 20 years, the internet has managed to become so normal that we’ve actually ceased thinking of it, kind of like we stopped thinking of written text as a technology. But – just like the early days of the printing press – something new has been unleashed; and though it has become normal, it is not neutral. MacKinnon’s Consent of the Networked illustrates this by taking into account the many ways the internet is tethered to governments, corporations and physical infrastructure.

Using case studies focusing on nations as well as companies, MacKinnon illustrates for readers the very high-stakes power struggles that determine the degree of open and free operation for the internet. She is quick to point out that not all these affiliations are inherently bad news for free speech on the internet, and that many internet bigwigs actively promote its use as a public space – particularly social media companies. But though social media can be a great help to activists wishing to be heard, we’d all do well to remember we use these spaces by privilege, not by right.

As MacKinnon reminds us, speech in these spaces is ruled by Terms of Service, not protected by constitutions or human rights. MacKinnon calls into question assumptions made by those in positions of power, and lays out eloquent arguments for why we must speak truth to these powers. And, while she is optimistic about the potential of the internet as a tool for free speech, she is realistic about the extent to which we can expect it to become a public space available to all.

Consent of the Networked might be a bit of a dense read, but it also presents the most thoroughly researched and reasoned arguments I’ve yet read on the role of the internet within the public sphere. It’s very highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the Arab Spring, net neutrality, media studies, or political science.

– Shauna Thomas, librarian

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