Abusing The Surveillance Scandal To Punish Internet Freedom Even More

from the hypocrisy-is-everywhere dept

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Senators Ron Wyden and John Thune highlight the growing hostility to American-based Internet companies from foreign governments that range from China to Brazil to the countries of the E.U. Each of these governments is aggressively pressing trade policies that would limit the free flow of information- based products and services.

The Senators, in what might at first blush seem a rare display of bi-partisanship, urge U.S. negotiators in on-going talks over existing or proposed trade agreements to press for free trade in digital goods, and to "protect America's digital economy from the political and protectionist scruples of foreign leaders."

Such agreements have historically dealt exclusively with trade involving physical goods, but now the focus is on information. As more and more of the world's commerce -- both physical and intangible -- moves online, we are witnessing a replay of the kind of trade wars that plagued world economies during much of the Industrial Revolution, with developing nations (then including the U.S.) using tariffs and other restrictions to prop up local industries. The goal of protectionism, then as now, was both to weaken the prospects for foreign companies and to impose political punishments in largely or even wholly unrelated international disputes. Senators Wyden and Thune, along with many of their colleagues in Congress and the Administration, are right to push harder for digital free trade. Despite the obvious social and economic benefits of unrestricted global commerce and the innately international nature of the Internet ecosystem, digital goods and services today are often regulated more severely than physical goods.

Digital trade has, unfortunately, rekindled long-dormant and ultimately counter-productive protectionist tendencies. That's both because they are new and, in many economies, the only hope of significant growth. (Google, admittedly not a fully objective party in such disputes, posted an outstanding white paper on the topic back in 2010 -- a good background for anyone just tuning in here.)

With notable exceptions (i.e., copyright), the U.S. has long been a consistent and authoritative voice of progressive policies here, a rare example where partisan politics have not infected the long-term interests of U.S. and non-U.S. constituencies.

But that authority, as the Senators acknowledge, has been significantly destabilized in the wake of on-going leaks over U.S. domestic and foreign electronic surveillance conducted under both the USA Patriot and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Acts.

Over the last six months, U.S. allies and not-so-friendly nations alike have seized on leaked information regarding the nature and scope of NSA and other U.S. government data collection and analysis as potent ammunition in some core struggles over the future of the global Internet. "In light of the recent revelations about the National Security Agency," Wyden and Thune write, "foreign consumers have understandably raised questions about the privacy of their online data. Unfortunately, these surveillance programs are giving cover to some trading partners to take measures against American technology companies under the auspices of protecting privacy. New digital trade rules are needed to be sure that current privacy concerns are not a stalking horse for protectionism."

But it's not just protectionism. Depending on the country or region, the surveillance revelations are being used as evidence (1) of the need for continued or even enhanced limits on U.S.-based cloud service providers, (2) of U.S. hypocrisy in pushing for digital free speech and other human rights in more repressive countries, and (3) to renew the argument that national governments need more control over Internet governance.

The free trade leg of this unholy tripod argues the severe and often secretive restrictions being placed on U.S.-based cloud service providers undermines their ability to protect the privacy of content hosted on behalf of non-U.S. residents and companies. These services, some governments now assert, should therefore be limited by law in favor of local industries who operate under local regulations that are more protective (at least on paper) of the privacy interests of their users.

The human rights counter-offensive is little more than a "gotcha" argument that the U.S. has lost its moral authority to advocate on behalf of citizens in countries such as Iran, China and Russia. Given that the U.S. is subjecting U.S. and non-U.S. citizens to sweeping electronic surveillance despite the Bill of Rights, these countries and their proxies urge, their own surveillance and repression can't be criticized. We're no worse than you, in other words.

The governance leg, finally, is a renewal of the putsch that was attempted and ultimately defeated as part of the International Telecommunications Union’s WCIT conference in Dubai late last year. Proponents of these and other anti-Internet initiatives tried to use a redrafting of U.N. telecommunications treaties as a back door to dismantle the engineering-driven, multi-stakeholder Internet governance model at the heart of what has made the digital ecosystem so successful. The U.S. government has too much influence over Internet governance, the argument continues to be made, now with new evidence to support it.

Those who are using the surveillance scandal to argue for commercially-crippling U.S.-based Internet and cloud services, for deflecting digital human rights advocacy, and for destroying the multi-stakeholder governance system are practicing the worst kind of hypocrisy. Most don't care at all about the revelations (or worse, are complicit in them). They are simply looking for any ammunition at hand to deploy in long-standing and often counter-productive objectives -- objectives that were well on their way to righteous defeat.

In many cases, the governments using the surveillance scandal have equally dirty hands. There are a lot of crocodile tears being shed about practices most if not all national governments surely knew was going on anyway. The leaks have made clear that some of the very same governments now wringing their hands are themselves past masters of the trade, and in many cases are themselves grateful users of much of the data the U.S. agencies have collected.

To these arguments, Internet users should speak as one: A pox on all your houses.

Unfortunately, and likely unintentionally, Internet users worldwide are doubly victims here. The surveillance scandal has provided new rhetorical opportunities to urge remedies that are almost certainly worse than the surveillance problem itself. Worse, that is, for users.

It would be bitter justice if the debate over a more appropriate balance between national security and the privacy of innocent citizens instead promoted the interests of those whose true goals are not enhanced privacy protection, but likely its opposite. What these advocates really want is to slow the growth of cloud-based services for economic and political reasons, to suppress the potential of technology to advance democratic goals, and to bring the digital ecosystem to heel beneath the dead hand of jealous and incompetent national governments.

To be clear, I have no intention here to appear to be shooting the messenger. As I wrote both long before and soon after the recent media firestorm over surveillance, it's difficult even to debate the merits of counter-terrorism measures when we know so little about what is actually being done. Both the Patriot Act and FISA are grossly deficient, at the very least, in providing both transparency and oversight, essential elements of meaningful democratic deliberation. The sooner we introduce meaningful reform to those aspects of the laws, the sooner we can go back to fighting to preserve and expand digital free trade, human rights, and multi-stakeholder Internet governance.

In that regard, the joint editorial from Senators Wyden and Thune is not really so surprising. In each of these areas, Congress (along with both Republican and Democratic White Houses) has long demonstrated bi-partisan support for the best answers -- "best" economically and politically.

The U.S. long held the moral high ground on these issues. We need to earn it back.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2013 @ 1:57pm

    considering that every 'Trade Negotiation' to date has been to get the best deal for the USA and it's companies and then create blue murder, bringing trade sanctions or worse into play, when another country tries to do the same for it's businesses and people. i dont recall a single deal that involves the USA that hasn't been detrimental to all the other countries involved and that hasn't contained threats to the other countries as well. this latest episode, the TPP, is a disgraceful, despicable example of the USA trying to take the best for itself and it's businesses but not only to the detriment of the other nations involved but with the added provision that there will be no way out in the future for any country when it wants to change things like copyright protection and patents. the USA is going to, again, kick up joe fuck at the changes using the original TPP agreement, the one that completely screws every other nation, to prevent any change. and rest assured, what is in TPP will be of greatest benefit to the USA while totally fucking everyone else. wait and see if figures get published about the number of deaths that occur because countries involved in TPP will only be allowed to buy USA drugs, making no look alikes at a fraction of the cost for people who earn less per year than i have to scratch my arse with! and guess what, not one person in the USA government, it's businesses or probably anywhere else will give a fly'in fuck, because it' isn't their Dad, or brother that's dying!! shameful beyond belief!!

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    • icon
      Gerald Robinson (profile), 16 Nov 2013 @ 10:27am


      "TPP, is a disgraceful, despicable example of the USA trying to take the best for itself and it's businesses"
      I must disagree with Anonymous Coward on this. The TPP is not about US interests but about powerful international companies whose interests are counter to those of the US as a whole—I agree that the TPP is despicable. The deification on Mickey Mouse is not in the US interest; it only benefits Disney. Unless Congress gets the balls to reign in NSA, DoJ and the FBI (given the recent otherwise senseless vote by the judiciary committee) I am led to wounder what information the NSA et al have on the senators.

      The NSA is charged with spying on foreign interests. But the inability of the Congress to limit NSA to their legitimate role makes everyone wounder if the US can effectively govern anything.

      Overall this will hurt the US far more then even the really disastrous TPP and TTIP as it gives legitimacy to anti competitive restrictions on the digital economy—which is the only growing segment of the US economy.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2013 @ 2:33pm

    I believe that repercussions are coming as a results of the NSA revelations. Some will be a long time in coming but they will come none the less if these spying agencies aren't reigned in.

    You will start hearing that corporations such as AT&T aren't welcome to bid on government projects for foreign countries. Some of it is already happening, much of it is to come.

    The US has totally lost faith in their government with the methods now being used to generate trade treaties in secret. Even the fool gets wise to the fact there is a reason why they are secret and it has to do with if everyone knew what was in them, no one would want them.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2013 @ 2:35pm

    Is Larry Downes unbiased in this issues? A disclosure would be appropriate.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    out_of_the_blue, 15 Nov 2013 @ 2:48pm

    "Free trade" is not same as "fair trade", nor is protecting domestic industry and jobs bad.

    Obviously a libertarian, which means in practice a de-regulating union-busting fascist-friendly corporatist and globalist. We have the evidence of the last 30 years that domestic industries need to be protected, NO reason that US workers should (or can) compete with slave labor in China, and that those policies result only in The Rich getting enormously richer while income inequality gets so severe that a third of the country must go on food stamps now.

    And the sitch is not going to get better without protectionism and "gov't intervention" of building some really big public works projects, which we can all benefit from, like the interstate highway system. -- Won't imporove by a few mega-corporations selling more Chinese made goods: that benefits only the already Rich. (The italicized is the whole of my rebuttal to your prolixity: rest of this is just expanding on my views as so often requested here: hat tip to "Gwiz".)

    And actually industrial jobs can be fun, except that The Rich always want to lower wages so can skim more, and also thereby lock people into dull dead-end labor. Doesn't have to be that way, it's entirely social convention, now contrary to the interests of civilization. TAX THE HELL OUT OF THE RICH and we'll thereby move back toward democracy. Right now, you are not equal at law with The Rich.

    Without mentioning the globalist Ultra-Rich at this scale, you describe only the world according to them.

    As my tagline has it:
    Economics is the non-science of telling fantasies to flatter plutocrats by omitting the real effects on laborers. It's an easy degree path for the lazy but well-off, requiring skill only at unctuous re-writing.

    The Rich don't hold the moral high ground. We the 99% foolishly allow them to equate Money Manipulation with worth to society, but actually they wreck countries one way or another in order to rule them.

    "Crony capitalism" is a term used to try and maintain that there's also a beneficial version; what the 99% actually want is well-regulated fair markets favoring Industrial Production over Money Manipulation.


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    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2013 @ 3:25pm

      Re: "Free trade" is not same as "fair trade", nor is protecting domestic industry and jobs bad.

      This is your first post I have read today that I didn't think I needed to press the report button. The only question I have and it is one I have thought about for a long while. If you tax the rich to a point they they leave the country, won't they also take their business with them and then people will lose their jobs? I don't understand the realm of the super rich but if my company was being taxed to the point that it was to much of my money, I would take my company to another country and all the jobs with it.

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    • identicon
      Chargone, 16 Nov 2013 @ 4:34pm

      Re: "Free trade" is not same as "fair trade", nor is protecting domestic industry and jobs bad.

      no idea why the hell this was reported. It's hardly offensive, and the only real error os the assumption that "TAX THE HELL OUT OF THE RICH and we'll thereby move back toward democracy." Which is: a) unlikely to get off the ground, and b) unlikely to solve much. And no, not because 'the rich will leave and take all the jobs with them'. That's a load of rubish, closely related to the moronic myth that cutting taxes for the rich but not the poor somehow does something other than reduce government income. Because the problem is not the tax rate. It's regulation. More specifically, improperly implimented or outright absent regulation, regulatory capture, loop holes, tax evasion, etc. And That is a problem of scale.

      At base, The USA is too damn big (i'd make the same argument for china to a lesser extent, possibly the EU, don't know enough about india. It's not Just a function of area or population size), and 'multinational corporations' are, in effect, even bigger. there's no way to solve these problems so long as the main entities causing them are out of meaningful reach of the influence of the common citizen. (And the main goal of any non-new-and-shiny representative democracy is to make that distanceas great as possible while giving the illusion that the citizens can still affect things, at least far more than is actually the case.)

      In theory, the law applies equally to everyone. In theory, the law is made with the best interests of the country and it's citizens at heart. In practice, there is a high court and a low court, and, more damagingly, laws are made in the interests of specific wealthy and influential individuals. So long as this is true 'tax the hell out of the rich' solves nothing. If it were not true 'tax the hell out of the rich' would be unnecessary.

      As for protectionism: properly implimented protectionism designed to reduce the effect of non-local actors on the local economy in favour of developing said economy is a Good Thing. Improperly implimented protectionism (such as production subsidies) does more harm than good, protecting old business models and legacy players from the very developement and progress such protectionism should be facilitating is plain and simple corruption and sabotage, and using tariffs and the like to put preasure on other countries for unrelated reasons Can be valid, but must be done catiously, with an eye to the economic effects on your own nation. Rare is the politician compitent enough to weild that tool, though a case can be nade that it's a better option than war, if it works... usually. Not always.

      But yeah, why on earth was this reported?

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      • icon
        Gerald Robinson (profile), 16 Nov 2013 @ 11:02pm

        Re: Re: "Free trade" is not same as "fair trade", nor is protecting domestic industry and jobs bad.

        I must disagree! "…laws are made in the interests of specific wealthy and influential individuals." is nonsense. Even the richest individuals are irrelevant any more. Its the big corporations and special interest groups who can give $xxxM bribes to congress who count.

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      • identicon
        Pragmatic, 18 Nov 2013 @ 5:56am

        Re: Re: "Free trade" is not same as "fair trade", nor is protecting domestic industry and jobs bad.

        Blue got reported for insulting Mike and going off-topic into a political rant. She's got four main settings:

        1. Mike-bashing. She's a pitiful attention whore who comes here to bash us because she can't get an audience for her own blog.

        2. Bashing "The Rich." Blue thinks that having a huge pile of money makes you a bad person, though she hasn't bothered to tell us what the limit on wealth ought to be and she swears she's neither commie nor collectivist, despite her rants often veering in that direction.

        3. Defending copyright to the death, forgetting that it only benefits "The Rich" or the insanely popular.

        4. Conspiracy theorizing over Google and its alleged involvement in govt. spying, despite all evidence to the contrary. I've got my own problems with Google, but she goes overboard and takes it too personally.

        You've seen two of those settings used in her latest post.

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  • icon
    John Fenderson (profile), 15 Nov 2013 @ 2:57pm

    We need to stop

    We need to stop saying that these things are the result of the "NSA revelations". That's shooting the messenger. We should, instead be speaking the truth: that these things are the result of NSA activities.

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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Nov 2013 @ 7:24pm

    Larry Downes is employed by the Google funded libertarian anti-regulation think tank Techfreedom. Google (mostly, but Facebook & Microsoft too) has frantically set their minions to work propagandizing in various media outlets about why privacy regulations are bad for us.

    Rarely do any of the authors of these PR pieces disclose who is funding them and it's disappointing to see that Techdirt has also been hoodwinked.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Indig Nation, 16 Nov 2013 @ 6:58am

    Complicit by Design

    It was obvious to some from the gitgo when sNOwden began spewing his NSA glee all over the news for the world to see, that this was going to be more like a hayday than bad day for those who have been using America as their own personal shitter. Only now are many realizing the reprocussions of living post sNOwden, and that is a complete politicization of everything that comes from a sNOwden leak. These people are creaming in their pinstrip suits and skorts. The outcome of living with a treasonous bastard among our ranks has always been the tightening of security and expanding the misery for everyone, except for those who could have stopped it, instead they throw another party.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pragmatic, 18 Nov 2013 @ 5:58am

      Re: Complicit by Design

      So you're happy to be under surveillance like a good little drone, Indig Nation? Knock yourself out.

      Free people won't stand for it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 18 Nov 2013 @ 10:05am

      Re: Complicit by Design

      If the NSA wasn't engaging in such egregious behavior, there would have been no leaks and none of the bad things you cite would have occurred.

      Why do you think this is Snowden's fault? It's the fault of the NSA and all three branches of government.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

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