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The public needs to be demanding that internet service providers are more accountable, says internet policy expert Rebecca MacKinnon.

Rebecca MacKinnonA lot of democratic governments are passing laws in the name of protecting children, in the name of fighting crime, in the name of fighting terror that are using solutions that involve censorship and surveillance - so, you know, putting in mechanisms to censor child pornography, putting in mechanisms to censor material that’s violating copyright, putting in more power to the government to conduct surveillance of what internet users are doing, and the concern is that these mechanisms are going to be abused, and so you’ve seen in a number of countries where they’ve put mechanisms in place to censor child pornography that other websites end up getting censored that aren’t actually child porn, and concerns about the extent to which the people running these systems might apply their own agendas and abuse their power to censor more material than they were actually mandated to censor.

In the United States and in Western Europe because of concern about cyber crime there is an increasing tendency to pass laws that allow law enforcement to access our information to follow what we’re doing, to demand that companies hand over information with less and less due process and less and less—fewer and fewer mechanisms for accountability.  In the United States if the government wants to read your mail, it’s pretty straightforward. There needs to be a warrant.  But if a government agency wants to look at your email and if you’re email is over 180 days old, they don’t need anything. They can just ask for it.  And so there are a lot of issues online where surveillance is much more pervasive in our online lives than it is in our offline lives.

Most people in the United States and the democratic west are not aware of that because when police officers come into your house or come into your office and they go through your files, they go through your desk, they go through your drawers and cabinets.  It’s pretty obvious that happened.  If they do the equivalent in your email, in your online storage spaces and your Facebook, you don’t know.  You have no idea it ever happened, and so you’re not going to raise a fuss about it because you didn’t know it happened and you don’t know who was responsible.  And so when power is being abused in digital networks we need to make sure people know and that people who are abusing power are held accountable, and we need to make sure that we’re not allowing governments or companies to get away with abusing that power.

So as an ordinary internet user there is quite a number of things you can do to defend your rights online.  First of all, is you have to be aware.  You need to be paying attention to how your social networks, how the internet services you depend on are collecting your information. You should be asking questions about how they share that information with the government, with other companies, who can access that information under what circumstances.  What are the company’s policies about taking down content or blocking content?  And so first of all is understanding what their policies and their practices are, and then second of all is that you need to make noise if you don’t like what they’re doing.  We’ve seen a number of situations where companies do sometimes change their policies if their users and customers are organizing and protesting against those policies. You see it sometimes just in terms of the fees they charge, but sometimes you’ve seen it also just in terms of their privacy and security practices or the way the terms under which you can use your real name or how you’re identified online.  You know, there's different ways you can push back.  

I think we need to be exercising our powers as consumers, so when you’re deciding what internet service provider to use or what email service to use, or even how you’re going to use a particular social network, think about whether that company is making an effort to protect your rights, and be careful about how you use that service so that you don’t expose yourself in ways that you don’t want.

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd