Google, China, and the future of freedom on the global Internet

Rebecca Mack writes:

In any place where governance and rule-making happens – whether through software code or written laws enforced by police – inhabitants have a choice. We can be subjects who submit to governance without consent, or we can be citizens who grant and withhold consent – and who are ultimately responsible for whether the government we’ve consented to fosters an open, free and just society or not. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as mere users of a service and start thinking of ourselves of inhabitants of a place called the Internet. We are Netizens. Time to get more proactive about shaping the Internet’s future – and pushing its most powerful players in the direction we want them to go.

Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have taken a first step toward recognizing that they are fallible and require greater ethical oversight than shareholders, boards of directors, and markets alone can provide. Last year they helped launch the Global Network Initiative, a multistakeholder effort together with human rights groups, socially responsible investors, and academics, in which they’ve pledged to uphold basic principles on free expression and privacy, committed to independent evaluations, and agreed to public accountability mechanisms. (Disclosure: I am a founding member and on the GNI board.) It’s hard to know at this point whether the GNI will succeed – it’s still very much an early-stage experiment. But it’s at least a recognition that new forms of public oversight, transparency and accountability are required to make sure that the companies who hold so much power over so many people’s lives do not abuse this power. It’s an early attempt to figure out what shape those mechanisms need to take.