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State Control Of Internet Freedom – Cure Worse Malady?

October 22, 2013
(pic courtesy

New draft legislation was introduced by European Union lawmakers to ensure data protection from foreign spying, as new details surfaced on US surveillance of French phone records. Earlier, Mexico and Brazil expressed outrage on NSA spying on their leaders. But as states erect protection through new regulations to circumvent US law that forces American companies like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo to surrender data to the NSA, thoughtful voices ask whether the cure might be worse than the malady. 

On Monday October 21, the EU’s Committee Civil Liberties Commission passed draft laws under which US companies such as Google etc. will have to adhere to new rules protecting data transferred to third countries if they are to operate in Europe.
“The measure makes America’s secret court orders powerless, forcing companies based outside the EU – such Google and Yahoo – to comply with European data protection laws if they operate in Europe.  Fines running into billions of Euros are set to discourage anyone from violating the new rules,” said the news website Russia Today RT.
Asked by RT in an interview what this meant for the average person Alexander Dix, the Berlin Commissioner for Data Protection said, “The rights of European citizens will be strengthened if this measure is adopted in Europe. There will still be problems to effectively control and monitor what intelligence services are doing but the problem is much larger than this I think because Google … and all the other big American companies need strict rules which they have to attain to, when they want to do business in Europe. They will certainly have to because the sanctions envisaged by the European Commission and the parliament are so heavy that they will certainly think twice before starting to break these rules.”
Meanwhile, Washington Post reported this morning that as reports surfaced in the French newspaper Le Monde of US siphoning over 70 million phone records in France, the Obama administration was “scrambling” to mitigate the damage. The Post said that President Obama had spoken by phone to his French counterpart Francois Hollande, “to discuss what the White House called ‘recent disclosures in the press – some of which have distorted our activities and some of which raise legitimate questions for our friends and allies.'”
The revelations came as Secretary of State John Kerry is in Paris. The Post quoted him saying at a press conference, “‘Our goal is always to try to find the right balance between protecting the security and the privacy of our citizens. This work is going to continue, as well as our very close consultations with our friends here in France.'”
However, the US Ambassador in France Charles Rivkin was summoned to the French Foreign Ministry as outrage mounted with the US action labelled as “shocking” and “unacceptable.” RT quoted the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius telling the media, “We must quickly assure that these practices aren’t repeated.”
While these go on in the domain of international politics, Tom Gjelten in a comment to the US-based NPRwebsite asks whether the reaction of countries like Brazil to redesign the architecture of the internet by increasing governmental control would actually harm privacy more than protect it.
Gjelten says that before NSA began spying on the Internet, it was only minimally governed by institutions such as Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Although ICANN was set up by the US, and companies such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook were American-owned, global internet freedom was respected to some extent due legislation such as the First Amendment and a culture of free speech.
Gjelten quotes Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert who has worked with Britain’s Guardiannewspaper in reporting on NSA surveillance activities and acknowledges that spying has been detrimental to the openness of the internet. “The NSA’s actions embolden these people to say, ‘We need more sovereign control,’ Schneier says. ‘This is bad. We really need a global Internet.'”
Gjelten continues, “Some of the countries pushing for more international control over the Internet were never all that supportive of Internet freedom, like Russia and China. But they’ve now been joined by countries like Brazil, whose president, Dilma Rousseff, was furious when she read reports that she was herself an NSA target.”

The row over internet surveillance set off primarily by NSA contractor Edward Snowden has yet to settle. As it expands it has sharpened the debate over the control states have over private citizens and their freedom, while protecting national security. Let’s see where it goes.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.