In its typically fulminating style, the English language edition of China's People's Daily proclaimed in an August 2012 editorial that the U.S. must cede control of the Internet. "The Internet has become one of the most important resources in the world in just a few decades, but the governance mechanism for such an important international resource is still dominated by a private sector organization and a single country," the newspaper noted.
China is not alone in this view. A coalition of Internet-restricting nations--including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and countries throughout Africa and the Middle East--have formed an international coalition calling for the United Nations to take over Internet governance.
The Chinese argument that the Internet structure serves U.S. “hegemonic interests” was long viewed by the international community as “cynical and hypocritical,” said Dan Gilmor, an author and expert on Internet issues, given the fact that U.S. policy has supported and promoted freedom of expression online while China has built a massive and sophisticated system of Internet control.
But the ever-growing revelations about the scope of digital spying carried out by the National Security Agency raise doubts about the U.S. commitment. The documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that some of the U.S. spying programs operated with technical support of technology companies subject to U.S. jurisdiction. The NSA took advantage of the fact that nearly all online communications passes through U.S.- based servers and switches to vacuum up a huge portion of global communication. It specifically targeted governments, including allies like Brazil, whose president, Dilma Rousseff, has taken grave offense at the invasion of her personal correspondence.
By using its technological advantage and indirect control over the Internet to carry out a global surveillance operation of unprecedented scale, Gilmor told CPJ, "The U.S. has abused its position, handing repressive regimes a lot of ammunition to be clamping down even more."
China has long argued that the United Nations-administered International Telecommunication Union (ITU) should assume the authority for setting technical standards that currently resides with ICANN, a quasi-private entity based in Los Angeles that operates under license from the U.S. Commerce Department. The People’s Daily editorial was intended to set the stage for the latest meeting of the ITU, which took place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in December 2012. At that meeting, a coalition of African and Middle Eastern countries introduced a treaty to bring Internet governance under ITU control.
The U.S. and European nations worked feverishly against the proposal, and in the end more than 50 countries, including all eligible members of the EU, refused to sign. But subsequently the U.S./EU coalition has been deeply strained by the Snowden revelations. Europeans, who place a much higher value on privacy, were outraged to learn that their personal data might have been accessed by the NSA. European leaders reacted with fury at the scope of the surveillance, with German officials calling the spying "reminiscent of the Cold War" and the French Foreign Ministry summoning the U.S. ambassador to offer a formal rebuke.
"The credibility of the United States as a global champion for freedom of expression and human rights is undoubtedly damaged by the NSA revelations," Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament and leader on Internet freedom issues, told CPJ.
The decentralized nature of the Internet, which makes censorship or control much harder, is a great strength for journalists and others committed to the free flow of information and ideas. But if you believe, as China does, that national sovereignty trumps the individual right to freedom of expression, then the Internet's current structure not only undermines state authority but also imposes U.S. standards of freedom of expression on the entire world.
This was the argument that played out at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2012 in the aftermath of the “Innocence of Muslims” video. After President Obama called censorship “obsolete” and described freedom of expression as a “universal ideal,” then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi pushed back, declaring that Egypt does not respect freedom of expression “that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.” His views were echoed by other leaders.
The embrace by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of the “right to connect” during a landmark speech at the Newseum in January 2010 was initially hailed by online freedom advocates as a positive step. But in the aftermath of the NSA scandal, it looks less enlightened. Many governments are skeptical of U.S. support for online freedom and believe that the U.S. commitment to free expression and association online is really about using the Internet to execute “regime change” and install client governments favorable to U.S. interests.
Iran under its last president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced plans to build a separate “halal” Internet closed off from the World Wide Web. In March 2012, Russian Duma member Aleksey Mitrofanov, head of the Parliamentary Committee on Information Policy, announced legislation to curtail online speech. “An era of absolutely free Internet in Russia has ended,” he declared. Since then, courts have shut down critical websites--one Internet news site was stripped of its license for posting videos containing “foul language”--and the country’s leading blogger, Aleksei Navalny, was convicted of trumped-up bribery charges.
Using powerful computers and technical acumen, the NSA has cracked encryption codes, making it possible for the U.S. government to gain access to nearly anything that moves online, according to a report by ProPublica. This has given the U.S. a tremendous strategic advantage, since it is widely believed to be the only country in the world with this capability. While the scope of online spying is still unfolding, the U.S. has hacked into the internal communication of at least one media outlet, according to a report in Der Spiegel. Citing leaked Snowden documents, the German magazine reported that the U.S. accessed Al-Jazeera’s internal communications in 2006.
Both Germany and Brazil have indicated they will assert greater control over their domestic Internet. Deutsche Telekom, which is partially government-owned, is seeking an alliance with other German Internet providers to shield the German network from foreign snooping. The Brazilian Congress, meanwhile, is considering legislation that would require Internet companies operating in the country to store their data on domestic servers, a proposal opposed by international communications and technology companies, which say such a system would be prohibitively expensive.
Brazil is also advocating a new U.N. treaty to safeguard privacy. Speaking at the U.N General Assembly in September 2013, President Rousseff said Brazil would “present proposals for the establishment of a civilian multilateral framework for the governance and use of the Internet and to ensure the effective protection of data that travels through it.” Eduardo Bertoni, who directs a global freedom of expression center at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, called on Brazil to “take concrete actions in support of Rousseff’s words” including disavowing the ITU treaty, which Brazil signed.
Internationalizing Internet governance is, of course, not inherently a bad thing. In fact, proponents of the current "multi-stakeholder model" of Internet governance are also calling for a reduced U.S. role. At an October 2013 conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, the leaders of the organizations that coordinate the Internet's technical structure called for the "globalization" of ICANN functions. The signatories included the head of ICANN, Fadi Chehadé.
Rebecca MacKinnon, author of a book about online free expression called Consent of the Networked and a CPJ board member, pointed out that the multi-stakeholder model, in which constituencies including governments, companies, and civil society groups share responsibility for Internet governance, is flawed but "better than going to the U.N."
She added: "The role that the United States has been trying to preserve as a protector of freedom of openness--not too many people take it seriously any more. If we want to preserve the multi-stakeholder model, then U.S. power needs to be reduced."
Schaake of the European Parliament agreed. "The negative impact of the exposure of the NSA activities is not limited to the United States' foreign policy objectives but could also harm the global open Internet, including the multi-stakeholder model as governments seek to take further control," she said. "We must ensure human rights and democratic principles are defended online. It is very worrying that the United States has undermined its own credibility to push these efforts."
There is a risk in the current environment that an open debate will simply provide an enhanced platform for Internet-restricting countries like China to push for U.N. control. Success, while unlikely, would be a catastrophic event, according to MacKinnon, and would mean the end of the Internet as a shared global resource. "Around the world, countries are increasingly restricting the Internet and seeking to bring it under state control," Gilmor noted. He said he hoped the Snowden revelations "don't accelerate the trend, but I fear that they might."
Though the Chinese government argues that the free circulation of information across borders threatens its sovereign interests, it has no philosophical objection to using the Internet as a tool for surveillance. Beijing's primary complaint is that when it comes to Internet snooping, the U.S. has an unfair advantage.
During a meeting that CPJ hosted in September 2011 that brought together frontline journalists, technologists, and thought leaders from Silicon Valley, I was struck by the casual comment of a highly informed participant who claimed that the NSA loved encryption because the American agency can crack it and the Chinese can't. This view seems to have been confirmed by the Snowden revelations. The fact that the U.S. State Department has provided training for activists from around the world in the use of secure communication tools, including encryption and proxy servers that we know the NSA was able to monitor, looks cynical indeed--not least from the perspective of the Chinese or Iranian governments.
The massive state-sponsored Chinese hacking operation that targeted U.S. government agencies, the personal accounts of activists, and international media outlets including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg prompted outrage and indignation from international press freedom organizations, including CPJ.
Though there is a real difference between the specific, targeted efforts to spy on international journalists carried out by Chinese authorities and the reputed use of metadata by the NSA to analyze patterns of communication, the Chinese hacking operation looks less aberrant today and more like an effort to level the playing field. The NSA spying operation has not only undercut U.S. moral authority, but has also made it more difficult for the international community to argue that the Chinese hacking operation falls outside international norms. After all, Google, which claimed it pulled out of China partly because Chinese hackers (by implication, with government sponsorship) targeted the personal emails of activists, provided information about its users to the U.S. government in order to comply with secret subpoenas.
Fearful of the U.S. snooping, countries are likely to look for alternatives to U.S companies where possible. While Google and Facebook are the most popular sites in much of the world, according to a study by the Oxford Internet Institute, the search engine Baidu, which is partially state-owned, is dominant in China. “That means the NSA has much less reach into China at least via U.S. companies,” MacKinnon pointed out. “China can say, ‘Hey, from a national security perspective, we made the right call.’”
The global information ecosystem on which international journalism depends requires an open Internet that transcends borders. Global media organizations deliver the mass audience, but the reporting and information-sharing is now a networked phenomenon, with eyewitnesses to events using social media and other electronic means to communicate directly and indirectly with journalists who contribute their information and perspectives. The system clearly threatens autocratic regimes whose power depends on their ability to control information at least within their own borders.
Those governments have increased their technical ability to control and monitor communication over the last half decade. But their actions, for the most part, lacked international legitimacy. The unprecedented global spying operation carried out by the NSA has reduced the stigma. As a result, international journalists may see their global information networks disrupted in coming years as countries around the world step up their efforts to censor and monitor online communication. Already, some media organizations have changed the way they do business, including the Guardian. "You can no longer guarantee anonymity to a source," said Janine Gibson, who edited the groundbreaking stories by then-Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald based on the Snowden leaks. "That's a terrifying thing for the journalists we work with."
Joel Simon is the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His book, Controlling the News, will be published by Columbia University Press in 2014.
Sign up for emailed alerts and newsletters to track global developments in press freedom. Be notified whenever journalists are attacked, imprisoned, killed, kidnapped, threatened, censored, or harassed. Or get a monthly newsletter to keep up with CPJ’s efforts to defend journalists around the globe.