Sovereigns of Cyberspace?

This morning’s Observer column.

One of the central ideas in MacKinnon’s book is the concept of what she calls “sovereigns of cyberspace”, – companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon that now exercise the kinds of power that were hitherto reserved for real “sovereigns” – governments operating within national jurisdictions. Witness, for example, the way in which Amazon arbitrarily removed Wikileaks from its cloud computing servers without any justification that would have withstood a First Amendment legal challenge ; or the way that Facebook took down a page used by Egyptian activists to co-ordinate protests on the grounds that they had violated the company’s rules by not using their real names.

The powers to curtail people’s freedom of speech in this way were traditionally reserved for governments which – in democracies at least – theoretically derived their legitimacy from John Locke’s notion of “the consent of the governed”. (It’s worth saying that some political scientists balk at the notion of companies as “sovereigns”. After all, Zuckerberg can’t lock you up, whereas a real government could.) The question MacKinnon raises is: in what sense do Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google enjoy the consent of the networked?