Summer Plans: Researching Online Freedom of Expression

Though my email address ends with @umich.edu, all correspondence flows through a Gmail inbox. My appointments are on a Google Calendar, and my fellow students and I routinely use Google Docs to keep track of group project information. The university and Google partnered in October, 2011.

I like Google products. Gmail is the best email client I’ve used, Google Calendar is what pried me away from paper planners, and I’m drafting this post in Google Docs. In exchange for free access to its products, Google can mine all the content I give it. This unsettles me, but I also have no other choice, at least when it comes to my university-related communication technology needs.

I bring up Google not to debate the advantages and disadvantages of its agreement with the university, but to illustrate a point Rebecca MacKinnon articulates in her book, Consent of the Networked:

“Internet-related companies are even more powerful because not only do they create and sell products, but they also provide and shape the digital spaces upon which citizens increasingly depend (p. 11)…The lives of people around the world…are increasingly shaped by programmers, engineers, and corporate executives for whom nobody ever voted and who are not accountable to the public interest in any way (p. xxii).”

While the United States is by no means innocent of pressuring companies and shaping laws that limit its citizens’ freedom online, I write this, send email, post on Facebook, and Tweet without fear that someone will persecute me for what I say. For this I am immensely grateful. MacKinnon writes of the Russian secret service obtaining financial records of those who donated money to a political blogger, the Chinese government forcing tech company employees to divulge personal information, including emails, of users, and the Iranian regime torturing people for their Gmail and Facebook passwords.

Internet companies collect and retain giant amounts of data about us. They can mine it,  governments can force companies to share it, and black hat hackers can decide they want a look, too. As I write this, the Washington Post’s homepage includes an article about a Chinese hack into Google’s database of accounts the FBI flagged for surveillance. These stories are as much a part of data storytelling as combing through databases and developing apps. As I wrote in my post about policy, “Understanding what organizations do with data is as important as using data to present compelling stories.”

This summer, I will join the Berkman Center for Internet & Society as an intern. I will work on its suite of projects related to freedom of expression: Internet Monitor, Internet Robustness, and Herdict. Over the next few months, I hope my work will contribute, in some small way, to answering MacKinnon’s central question: “How do we make sure that people with power over our digital lives will not abuse that power” (p. xx).

What are the most critical Internet freedom issues you see in today’s society? Share them in the comments.

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