While reading Rebecca MacKinnon’s book, Consent of the Networked, about Internet freedom throughout the world, one statement stood out to me from the very beginning and stuck with me the entire book. In the first chapter MacKinnon says, “The problem is that our ability to organize and speak out is shaped – often quite subtly – by the Internet service providers, e-mail services, mobile devices, and social networking services,” (MacKinnon, 6). The words subtly and shaped became burned into my mind and I started to think about all the ways we could be subtly manipulated by our Internet providers, government, private corporations, and others, and not even realize it. In the next chapters of her book MacKinnon discusses the authoritarian control over the Internet in places like Syria and China. I agree with MacKinnon that it is terrible what the governments are doing in those countries; to block information and give the people no privacy, but it is obvious there. Most people in China know about the firewall, and when Syria shuts down parts of the Internet the people are aware and can fight back. But how do we fight back against subtle manipulation if we aren’t really aware it is happening? We are already subject to a lack of privacy in our email thanks to Yahoo and Google. Search engines like Google are also already controlling what we see with their algorithms. Certain websites might not be blocked to the public, but they can be hidden quite easily in the long tail end of Google searches. Another example is Facebook, they read all our content to sell ads and they have their own algorithms so we don’t see all the content our friends or pages we like post.
I think part of the problem is that we follow our technology blindly. In a recent study, out of those who have Apple products, 60% admitted that they have a “blind loyalty” to the company and 78% stated they could not imagine having another type phone. I will admit I am part of that group; I have an iPhone and an iMac. I have had android and blackberry phones in the past, but I always go back to Apple. It is this blind loyalty that starts to scare me after reading MacKinnon’s book. I think of how many people buy and trust these products and software without realizing how they might be subject to manipulation. I believe subtle manipulation can be more dangerous than a complete tyranny because it can go unnoticed. Of course it cannot go unnoticed forever, but once we realize the lack of control and privacy we have will it be too late? I think of this like gaining weight, when you look at yourself in the mirror everyday it is hard to notice subtle changes, but then a few months later without even realizing it your favorite jeans no longer fit and you have gained 20 pounds. To loose that weight will take twice or three times as long than it did to gain it and at that point you either try your hardest to fight back or just give up and buy a bigger pant size. I fear we are sliding down this same slippery slope when it comes to our Internet freedom and privacy.
In the final section of MacKinnon’s book she discusses how we can fight for our Internet freedom. There must be some give and take from all sides. We must take it up ourselves to be aware of changes and to pay attention to what is happening around us, on and offline. We must have a level of trust, but not blind trust, it is important to fact check. In addition to this there also must be some give from the government, and the private and public sectors of the Internet. One thing MacKinnon mentions is transparency. This can be difficult for large corporations, but it is important for the public and users of online services to know that their privacy and freedom are not being jeopardized. I think our current system is in a fragile state right now and things could go either way. I can say for myself though that I will be starting to pay more attention.