Many states police their own inhabitants’ online activities but the US does it wholesale. Microsoft, Google and the rest have expressed their reservations.
by Dan Schiller
For years the US authorities have browbeaten other states, especially China and Iran, for repressing their citizens’ access to the Internet. We knew this was hypocritical even before Edward Snowden began his sensational revelations, but the issues go beyond hypocrisy.
In 2010 a US Department of Commerce inquiry (1) revealed that leading Internet suppliers and users were nervous about US Internet policy, which they criticised, though in guarded, even coded language: none of them explicitly mentioned the NSA’s PRISM programme.
TechAmerica, representing some 1,200 member companies, told the Commerce Department that Federal Bureau of Investigation calls for legislation on electronic surveillance to be extended to all communications services might induce other countries to “see such regulatory authority in the US as a model for their own regime — either just as, or even more onerous for cost and concerning civil liberties” (2). TechAmerica urged that policies be fostered “that enable free flow of information here at home.”
Microsoft, with studied vagueness, said that “users overseas also have expressed concerns about having their data stored in the US, due to a perception that the US government can freely access their information” (3). Microsoft stressed that “the US and other countries also need to consider the impact of their domestic policies.” The company was later reported to have cooperated with the US National Security Agency (NSA), to the extent of helping the NSA to find ways to circumvent its own encryption software, and to intercept email, Skype chats and other services it hosts (4).
Google behaved with smug arrogance. “Protecting and promoting the flow of information and free expression are core Google values” (5), the company declared, protesting that “governments are incorporating surveillance tools into their Internet infrastructure … imposing new secretive regulations; and mandating onerous licensing. These actions … left unchecked …will almost certainly become worse.” The search giant underlined that “the US is the birthplace of the Internet, and it must continue to set an example of responsible regulation that enables individuals and companies to enjoy and build on the many benefits of the free flow of digital information.” Google has denied that it gave the NSA access to its servers, but an NSA PowerPoint presentation reportedly boasted that the agency had “direct” access to Google’s services, alongside those of nine other US Internet companies, including Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL and Microsoft (6).
‘Internet freedom starts at home’
The influential Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), representing small and large member companies with combined annual revenues exceeding $200bn, also adopted a virtuous stance: “We must recognise that Internet freedom starts at home. We must discourage censorship; surveillance; and content blocking, prioritising or de-prioritising whenever possible. If unavoidable, such actions must be time-limited, narrowly tailored and undertaken in an open and transparent process. Finally, we must eschew attempts to deputise online intermediaries into law enforcement. If the United States cannot maintain a free and open Internet, it is unlikely [that] other nations will do so” (7).
The obvious target of these comments was draft US legislation, which would have subjected Internet intermediaries to draconian new controls; and after a two-year struggle, these bills were eventually defeated. But in retrospect the Internet companies’ submissions to the Commerce Department were more self-serving. Microsoft, Google and the rest foresaw, as the NSA evidently did not, that the results of US surveillance programmes stood a good chance of boomeranging. If this occurred, it might not only embarrass the US government but damage their own corporate interests. “When we discuss the global free flow of information over the Internet,” said the CCIA, “there are potentially trillions of dollars of US economic activity at stake” (8).
Many states police their own inhabitants’ online activities; but the US does it on a wholesale basis, operating as what US writer Tom Engelhardt calls a “global surveillance state”. And it does so with the complicity of a far-flung array of Internet intermediaries, from search engines, e-commerce and social network sites to telecom networks. It’s long past time the 1970s and 80s debates over corporate and state trans-border data flows were revived.
Source : http://mondediplo.com
by Dan Schiller