In April 2011, a Vietnamese dissident explained to me why he gave up blogging critically about the government. "We have jobs, motorbikes, nice coffee shops, and big luxury buildings," he said, pointing to the then-recently opened Bitexco Financial Tower, Ho Chi Minh City's tallest edifice, with a helicopter landing pad jutting out of its side. "The Communist Party has made this blogging unprofitable. If we go up against them, how do we get a piece of that prosperity?"
He confided in me during a touchy juncture for Vietnam, and plainclothes police could have harassed him for our meeting. The country's inflation rate was among the highest in the world just as the Arab Spring protestors were toppling their respective governments. Three months prior, the party's inner circle had been worried that opponents would stir up unrest during the 11th National Party Congress, a widely watched gathering at which new leaders were voted into the Politburo. Nervous authorities, trying to keep the calm, had been stepping up their hunt for pro-democracy foes and renegade bloggers.
I landed in this sensitive period for the one-party state as part of a Fulbright grant researching journalists and bloggers in Vietnam, and economic coverage in particular. Over 10 months I interviewed about 30 of them, trying to get to the bottom of some sensitive questions. How do writers make decisions about how far they'll push the boundaries, especially on business coverage, the bread and butter of Vietnam's global image today? How do government officials decide when to relax the restrictions and when to crack down (and how do reporters resist those dictates)? Most importantly, what forces would explain an apparent increase in censorship—particularly through the harassment of bloggers—over the past five years or so, just as Vietnam was becoming wealthier as a whole?
Vietnam in 2011 was the world's fifth-worst jailer of bloggers and reporters: Nine were imprisoned, according to the New York–based Committee to Protect Journalists. There's some irony to that development. Ten years ago, Western pundits were speculating that the opposite would occur—that the Internet would open up a new public sphere for dissent, unmanageable by repressive regimes.
Those high hopes have waned somewhat, notes Rebecca MacKinnon in her timely cyber-manifesto, Consent of the Network: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom. One problem, says MacKinnon, is that the optimists did not anticipate how far governments would go to suppress online subversion, as well as keep collusion profitable for private technology companies.
A conundrum lies at the heart of her book: We depend increasingly on the Internet to sustain democracy, but we do not fully grasp how nation-states and companies wield their influence in this borderless digital world. The only way to solve that problem is for Internet users—"netizens" in her parlance—to take a more assertive role in protecting their online freedoms.
MacKinnon, a former CNN bureau chief in Beijing, speaks with authority on this topic. Now a fellow at the New America Foundation, she's best known as a scholar of Internet censorship in China. She rose to prominence as an online free-speech activist when, in 2004, she cofounded Global Voices Online, a nonprofit that tracks, translates, and summarizes trends in the worldwide blogosphere. (I wrote four blog posts for Global Voices in 2007 and 2008 but have had scant personal contact with MacKinnon since. [MacKinnon is a member of the Policy Innovations advisory board.])
Consent of the Networked reads like a culmination of MacKinnon's advocacy years, drawing on personal anecdotes while also tracing the contours of recent struggles against online censorship in Egypt, Tunisia, China, Europe, and the United States. Her chapter on Chinese Internet censorship is a must-read. It pieces together how the authorities conduct censorship in association with a network of compliant universities, companies, and patriotic hackers that enforce Internet laws on behalf of the Communist Party.
Upon broader examination, it becomes clear that Beijing benefits from outside help. MacKinnon shows that even though the U.S. Congress earmarked $50 million from 2007 to 2010 to fight online censorship around the world, many monitoring technologies arrive in China by way of North American companies.
Last July, for instance, the Wall Street Journal reported that electronics giant Cisco was in talks to supply Chongqing, a city in southwestern China, with equipment for a massive surveillance campaign that would connect 500,000 cameras over an area larger than New York City. The company later claimed it turned down the offer. Speaking to a reporter, one Hewlett-Packard vice president summed up his stance on selling technology to China: "It's not my job to really understand what they're going to use it for."
With amoral arguments like that, it's easy for the tech executives to dismiss MacKinnon as an anti-corporate vigilante who holds misguided views about the benefits of investment in China and elsewhere.
Yet on a deeper read, one can see that her scrutiny is both practical and moderate. She is merely laying the groundwork for rule of law so that the arbitrary whims of Facebook, Google, and government officials cannot continue to exert feudal rule over cyberspace. Just as democratic states are legitimate only insofar as they have the consent of the governed, so too should they be forced to seek the "consent of the networked" in a social contract on the Internet.
Most impressive is MacKinnon's ability to inject a rich history of classical liberal thought into what could otherwise be a dry and technical tome. Her style closely follows the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, who in his 1835 classic Democracy in America observed how the public sphere of "civil society" upheld America's fresh political experiment.
The Internet, she says, has given rise to a similar but underdeveloped space called the "digital commons"—an arena where anyone can contribute ideas to sites and services such as Wikipedia, YouTube, and WordPress. These virtual grounds resemble the French salons or British coffeehouses of the Enlightenment, and have already shown their potency in aiding last year's Arab Spring protestors.
One takeaway from MacKinnon's book is that if governments persist in repressing the free expression of ideas online, and deny the consent of the networked, then they should brace themselves for continued upheaval.
Geoffrey Cain has covered Asia for TIME, The Economist, Far Eastern Economic Review, and others. He researched the press in Vietnam in 2011 as a Fulbright scholar, and is currently based in London.