Thought Leader: Rebecca MacKinnon

October 23, 2012

As part of the the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Rebecca MacKinnon. She is a blogger and co-founder of Global Voices Online and a Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

DEVIN STEWART: We always start this with a kind of description. We ask our thought leaders to basically describe the world today. How is the world unique today, especially in a moral sense? Is the world unique today at all? If so, how?

REBECCA MACKINNON: What’s, I think, really unique about today is the way in which our reality is extending into the virtual. That’s leaving a lot of questions. There’s a great deal of unfamiliarity. Increasingly, our physical lives and our digital lives are becoming intertwined. As human beings, we’re increasingly dependent on devices, on network platforms, on online services, wireless services for all aspects of our lives, going from our most intimate aspects of our love lives, coordinating our families, to our education, to our business, to our civic life and religious life, and to our politics.

Increasingly, we have our physical offline persona. We have digital personas. Sometimes they are consistent; sometimes they are not consistent. Sometimes we’re different online for different communities. There are communities online that extend into the physical. There are some physical communities that extend online. There are some online communities that are just online. There are spaces that we inhabit, digitally and physically, that interact in different ways.

This is calling into question a whole lot of issues around power and sovereignty, and the ethics of the exercise of power and sovereignty, and moral responsibility of the individual, when you have digital platforms and digital networks that, of course, are crossing time and space, that are collapsing borders, that are enabling people to communicate in real time, that enable a person who is speaking perhaps in a fairly obscure physical place to achieve an audience that they might even not realize is watching or listening to them.

Then also there are a lot of these digital spaces, digital communities, that are within platforms and networks that are owned and operated by the private sector, who are then exercising a kind of sovereignty over people’s digital lives in terms of how these companies choose to develop their services, in terms of what you can and cannot do with them or within them, in terms of who you can and cannot be, in terms of how your identity is represented or how your information is shared, and then how those digital private sovereignties interact with government sovereignties, interact with offline and online communities.

So there are a lot of issues, about not only the responsibility of governments in handling technology to ensure that we are able to use the technology to fully exercise our rights as physical people, but also what the responsibilities of governments are, and what the rights and responsibilities are of the individual within this globally networked world, around a whole series of issues. If you say something privately that’s negative about an individual in your town hall, that’s one thing, but if you’re saying it on the Internet and you gather a cyber mob around an issue to go after somebody, what are the issues around that?

So I think one of the problems we have is over many thousands of years, we have developed within society ethical systems, also systems of governance, both community unofficial governanceand of people’s behaviorand also, of course, official governance of law and enforcement, that works well for the physical world and politics around holding that governance accountable. We never achieve it perfectly, but we know what accountable governance in the physical world around the nation-state ought to look like. We know what that is. It’s democracy. It’s a representative democracy of some kind.

But how do you achieve accountable governance that also protects rights of minorities of global digital spaces, of global digital networks and platforms, where you have different nation-states trying to exercise power over these networks and platforms, you have companies trying to achieve their interests, you have all kinds of groupseverything from hate groups to democracy activists to educational groups to WikiLeakstrying to use the technology to achieve their goals in different ways, and to manipulate it sometimes?

Again, who’s setting the rules? Who’s enforcing the rules? How do we ensure that as this globally networked system evolves, it’s grounded in a global system of ethics, of human rights norms, of justice that can conserve the rights and interests of everybody on the network, everybody who is using the technology, not just the most powerful or the most connected?

DEVIN STEWART: You hit a lot of our questions already, Rebecca. This is great. Just to go in order hereyou actually touched on a lot. We won’t go back to those, so don’t worry.

REBECCA MACKINNON: I’ll let you keep track of that. I’ll just talk. I have the easy part.


Would you describe things as getting better or worse? Clearly it’s an open-ended question. But things have changed a lot over the past few hundred years.

REBECCA MACKINNON: It’s, of course, hard to know. I’m optimistic that things are getting better, but I think we cannot be deterministic. I think there’s a danger that people assume that just because we have technology, people are more empowered, people are more connected, and, ergo, all we need is more technology and everything is going to be solved and we’re going to be more democratic as a result. I think we need to be constantly looking at who’s taking responsibility for what, who’s being held accountable for what.

I think what we’re seeing, both in the research and just from recent events, is that digital technology can be tremendously empowering. A lot of factors contributed to the Arab Spring, but we would not have seen the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt happen the way they did without the Internet, without mobile technology there in the mix.

Certainly it has very empowering potential, but at the same time, technology has great potential to empower governments in ways that are very insidious. For instance, when it comes to surveillance, I like to draw the comparison between the sort of Eastern European Cold War kind of surveillance systemand one book that I like to think about in that context is Timothy Garton Ash’s The File, which is a chilling account of what happened when the wall came down in East Germany and everybody could look at their Stasi files for the first time. People were finding out that it was the neighbors and it was their family members spying on them and so on. It was really shocking.

But now with the technology, it’s not people spying on us so much; it’s our devices. And it’s not just in Eastern bloc Cold War, former Soviet bloc countries, but this technology is collecting the information everywhere. It’s just a matter of how you are constraining against the abuse of how the information is shared and used.

In Egypt, for instance, after Mubarak stepped down, some activists were able to storm into the state security headquarters outside of Cairo. Some people found their own files or found the files of other people there. It was just reams and reams of emails, even Skype transcriptspeople thought that their Skype was secure, but it had been actually captured through something called deep packet inspection technology that had been purchased from Europeand transcripts of people’s cell phone text messages and so on. That was what made up their dossier.

The modern dossier is easily collected on anyone in any society, if we don't have the proper constraints. You don't need whatever state security to go and recruit people to spy for you anymore. They just have to go to the cell phone companies and the Internet service providers, if they have that power to get that information, if there’s no constraint.

So the whole question about accountability becomes really important and how you hold the exercise of digital power accountable and how you constrain against its abuse. I think if we can figure out how to hold power accountable in the digital realm, things will continue to get better.

I think if we fail to find ways to hold people responsible for the exercise of their power digitally and hold accountable abuse of power in the digital realm, things may cease to get better.

I have spent a lot of time in China, for instance. I think in the early days of the Internet in China, people just kind of assumed that democracy would come to China, thanks to the Internet. The Internet has, I think, brought more discourse and openness to China, but it hasn’t brought democracy. The Communist Party has found ways to manipulate the Internet and constrain it enough to stay in power. They have had to adjust to it themselves.

But I think there is oftentimes an assumption here in the West, particularly in the United States, that you have democratic countries over here, you have authoritarian countries over here, and thanks to technological progress, these guys are just going to inevitably and inexorably end up over here. Can we really assume that? Might we actually kind of meet in the middle?

That’s my biggest concern. The Chinas may get a bit better, thanks to the Internet and connected technologies, but whether or not we’re going to get any more democratic, frankly, is an open question. I’m not sure. It’s not clear at all whether governance in the United States has gotten more accountable in the Internet age, whether we are a more democratic society today than we were 10 years ago. It depends on how things play out.

I think there’s tremendous potential in the technology, but we have to use it responsibly. We need to figure out how we create the right structures that empower and maximize the good and constrain the evil.

Just to add to that, too, in the early days of the Internet there was this assumption that the Internet would just bring cultures together, would foster greater geopolitical understanding, that Americans would understand the Middle East much better because they could talk to Arabs directly on the Internet and vice versa. That obviously has not happened. A lot of the research shows that actually people tend, even online, to follow the people who are likeminded. It takes real effort to break out of that.

So it’s not enough just to have the Internet. You need to think about how you build the social structures, not only in the physical world, but in the digital world, how you build new media structures, platforms for conversation that actually enhance and encourage more connectedness between people who are different from one another, that actually make it easier for people to encounter new information or new perspectives, rather than just making it easier for you to stay in your little silo. So it depends on how things are designed.

We talk a lot in the United States about Internet freedom and the need for a free and open Internet. We absolutely do need a free and open Internet, I think, if people’s rights around the world are to be realized and if people are able to use technology to really fulfill their potential economically, as well as politically and everything else.

But freedom does not mean “state of nature” any more in cyberspace than it means in the physical world. So the question is, how do we build civilization, not only in the physical world, but in our digital lives, that incentivizes civilized behavior and disincentivizes uncivilized, nasty, evil behavior? We haven’t figured out how to do that.

I think part of the problem is that people too often assume that, automatically, technology will“automagically”make things better and more connected. But at the end of the day, human beings remain human beings. Nothing has changed about human nature. We need to remember that. And technology is the product of human beings and of human nature.

I think we’re at our best as a species when we kind of engineer for the fact that we’re capable of doing evil and we need to constrain ourselves that way, and that power has to be constrained and held in check, and that different interests need to be balanced against one another so that nobody achieves absolute power. But we haven’t worked out how to do that in a globally networked environment, when power increasingly is exercised not just by states, but by all kinds of other actors that are cross-border, that are private, that are hard to define, that aren’t even a groupsort of amorphous flash mobs of people with a common interest that come together.

So we’ve got a lot of work to do.

DEVIN STEWART: You have touched on a lot of these, Rebecca.

You have answered pretty much most of our questions

REBECCA MACKINNON: Okay. There’s something else I could say.

DEVIN STEWART: I have some very specific ones that I would like to end up with. I have about five left. I would like to just get real targeted. They are more in our project.

You have talked about defending good and constraining evil and protecting global norms on human rights. Part of what we’re doing here is illuminating an idea of a global ethic. How would you describe a global ethic? What’s inside of it? What’s the content of it?

REBECCA MACKINNON: That’s a really good question. I think a lot of work has been done around a global ethic, around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is, I think, a core, foundational set of ethics that was developed by a multicultural, international group of people, endorsed by the United Nations. It’s still aspirational in much of the world.

If you take the content of that document and you go around the world with it, once you kind of get past the cultural framing, I don't know of any community that doesn’t agree with those fundamental principles. So oftenand I co-founded something called Global Voices, which is an international citizen media community, which involves bloggers and people who use social media to report on issues happening in their countriesyou see, from the Middle East to South Asia to East Asia to China to Latin America, people citing particularly Article 19, but also other parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as their defense for why they’re doing what they’re doing and why they have a right to be doing what they’re doing.

I think we do have that corethe Universal Declaration, together with the UN covenants, around which there’s a bit more controversy, of course, around economic rights and how economic rights should be defined and all that kind of thing.

In my own work and working with communities in different parts of the world, working with Chinese activists and people in very different cultures, who have very different sociolinguistic, religious backgrounds, there’s a common concern for justice, for social justice. I don't know any culture where corruption is considered a noble thing, even though it’s very accepted.

The notion that if you are wronged, there should be some way to appeal and achieve justice, that there should be a system through which that is possible, that there is a way to find economic opportunity for yourselfif it’s not physically where you are right now, you should have the ability, you should be allowed to do what you need to do to move to where you need to be or conduct the activity that you need to conduct, assuming it’s not stealing or killing, to be able to earn a living.

You see, I think, in a lot of public discourses in a lot of different culturesagain, there are very different values around private sector versus government, socialism-capitalism, this type of thing. But there is, I think, a universal human desire for at least a baseline economic fairness and a baselineit’s not acceptable for the rich to sit there while others starve, particularly when the starvation is the product of an unjust system. That you have done well by society and you owe something back also seems to be a fairly universal thing.

Of course, there are a lot of challenges. There are some people who feel that those with different religious views than theirs or who are from a different ethnicity do not have the same worth on the planet. How you deal with that, how you deal with cultural differences and differences of belief while allowing the rights of all individuals on the planet to be equally respectedthat’s one of the big challenges. It has always been a challenge for humanity, but in this very interconnected world today it’s an even bigger challenge than ever, with so much migration and markets moving people around. We need to figure out how to deal with that.

DEVIN STEWART: Rebecca, thank you. Just two or three more. Part of our project is looking back at the last 100 years, but also I think it’s more valuable to look ahead, in some ways, for planning purposes, for showing direction. I don't want you to necessarily make a prediction. You can if you like. What would you like to see happen in the world in the next 100 years or so?

REBECCA MACKINNON: That’s a very good question.

I would love to go to the moon before I die, but our space program seems to be gettingso unless I have enough money to pay the Russians to take me, I might not make it, which also seems unlikely.

But joking asideand I write about this in my book Consent of the NetworkedI think the world right now is at another, what I call, Magna Carta moment, which is that there was a certain point, not for the entire world, but beginning in England, where the barons in England at the time said, “You know? This divine right of kings thing is not working for us so well. We need something better. We need to constrain the monarch’s power. We don't think the monarch’s power is legitimate just because he claims that God gave it to him.” They wrote a document and made the king sign it and tried to get the king to abide by some basic laws.

It didn’t work out so well at that point, but that led eventually to the idea of consent of the governed, which eventually led to the American Revolution and the first experiment in actually implementing consent of the governed around the idea of the nation-state. Over time that has become sort of the notion of consent of the governed. Yes, it’s imperfect in practice. You can argue about it endlessly from a political theory point of view, whether it’s just a platonic ideal, et cetera, et cetera.

But it’s kind of the organizing principle for how we think about legitimacy around the nation-state, and that a government is only legitimate if it's governing by the consent of its people. Even dictatorships go to great lengths to create these fake elections to prove to the world that they have the consent of the governed. It’s sort of an organizing principle around the nation-state.

But I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re realizing that if we want to solve the world’s problems that we have just been talking about in this interview, in a globally interconnected world, where you have platforms and services that aren’t respecting boundaries of physical sovereignty and you have communities that don't map well into boundaries of physical sovereignty, this organizing concept of governance around consent of the governed built around the nation-stateit’s not working so well for us anymore.

But we’re at the Magna Carta moment. We’re not at the John Locke moment or the American Revolution moment. We’re just at the moment where we are recognizing that our organizing principle for power and legitimacy and governance that we have kind of assumed was the best way it could be isn’t going to work for us in this new networked age. But we don't yet really know what we’re going to replace it with. Our existing geopolitical structures, international economic structures, national political structures for holding power accountable aren’t mapping well to this new universe we’re in. But we don't have alternatives. All the other alternatives are even worse that we have come up with so far.

I think we’re going into a somewhat messy period of figuring this out. We’re entering the messy period in between the Magna Carta and the American Revolutionor let’s say sometime after the American Revolution, when they actually started to figure out how to implement this notion of the consent of the governed. We’re entering into, I think, a period that’s going to involve a lot of experimentation when it comes to governance, when it comes to accountability, when it comes to how communities that feel that they have been wrongedand I mean communities in the broader sense, not just physical communities, necessarilyhow they seek and obtain justice. We are, I think, entering a period of tremendous experimentation and uncertainty.

I think the nation-states that are going to be the most successful in the future will probably be those that are the most flexible in ceding power in order to maintain influence. Just as we moved from monarchies to democracies, an enlightened leaderand we even saw this in Taiwan. An enlightened leader said, “You know, in order to maintain legitimacy, I have to cede power and even be willing to be voted out of power, if I want my party to survive.” And that happened.

We may be seeing something similar with nation-states and with governments. How does a government of a physical nation-state survive and maintain its legitimacy in this globally interconnected age? They might have to start thinking about their power very differently. Politically that could be painful and messy. But here we are. We can only go forward.

DEVIN STEWART: World peacelast question. Andrew Carnegie was one of the early advocates for world peace.


DEVIN STEWART: Thus our institution.

It means different things to different people, world peace: What does it mean? What is it good for? Our question is, is world peace possible? Last question.

REBECCA MACKINNON: Oh, my goodness. That’s a tough one.

I think this is a challenge of how you define world peace. Do you mean that no one ever commits violence against anyone? Does it mean that nations are not at war against one another? If you have a world in which the nation-state is increasingly not the organizing principle, then world peace really means different groups not acting violently against one other.

I think unless human nature changes, which I see no evidence or possibility of happening, franklyand I think it would be ill-advised for policymakers or philanthropists to devise a strategy based on the hope that human nature changesassuming human nature remains constant, there’s always going to be violence. There are always going to be people who will try to organize violence. I think it’s going to be difficult to eliminate organized violence from the planet unless human nature changes.

That said, I’m optimistic that we can find ways to constrain organized violence. But it’s not going to be easy. I don't think it will happen in my lifetime.

But that said, unless you have the ideal, unless you’re working towards the ideal, things won’t get better.

DEVIN STEWART: Perfect ending, Rebecca. Thank you.