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Sovereigns of cyberspace - power without responsibility?

'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely'. Lord Acton would presumably be delighted to learn his aside in the late 19th Century has become a cliche. But like many clichees it remains as true now as ever . Absolute rulers can be challenged, albeit often very bloodily and painfully as we're constantly witnessing. But finding the levers of power is a lot more difficult if the ruler is a very rich business operating across the globe on open networks like the Internet.

Rebecca McKinnon, blogger, campaigner and co-founder of the ever-excellent Global Voices Online, one of the longest-lasting of early Web 2.0 social-change platforms, has written a new book, 'Consent of the Networked', which is attracting huge interest and a lot of praise. Activists on this IG platform won't need to be reminded that the, "Internet poses the most complex challenges and opportunities for human rights to have emerged over the last decade", as Mary Robinson, Former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and President of Ireland says in her review of the book, which she praises as "a clear-eyed guide through that complexity.”  It's a must read for IG geeks and activists.   

John Naughton, another prolific author and commentator on the Internet loves good technology and creative companies but he keeps a keen eye and an acid pen on the issues raised by the growth of monopolies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook. His blog post on the book summarises issues central to  IG debates

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 power of the Internet to connect people and communicate to audiences beyond national boundaries was a key tool for those who succeeded in challenging corrupt absolute rulers in North Africa during 2011. Yet their very success has also been a learning process for those who would prevent others who want to follow in their footsteps. It may be a naive proposition but, for ordinary people like me, the Internet Governance community represents one of the few independent, multi-stakeholder alliances which can both understand and apply leverage in global policy processes to the issues raised by McKinnon and Naughton . Go to it!       


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The full text of the book An Introduction to Internet Governance (6th edition) is available here. The translated versions in Serbian/BCS, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Portuguese are also available for download.


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