In the months since the first leaks about the National Security Agency made their way into the public eye, an increasing number of the revelations have been geared not towards surveying Americans’ communications but spying on countries overseas. With that shift, and the ensuing reactions from foreign leaders, these public airings of U.S. actions could have the unintended result of ending the way the Internet exists as we know it today.
The United States currently plays an out-sized role in shaping how the Internet is regulated, through housing the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN deals with the domains and numbers that allow almost anyone in the world to access almost any website in the world no matter where the data is housed, free from interference from governments. Along with that, many servers for companies that are among the most popular in the world, such as Facebook and Google, are housed in the United States. So far, this combination has meant that the Internet has remained a fairly open place, with no real limits or top-down approaches to regulating it through government bodies.
That system first came under threat from the NSA leaks over the summer when stories began being published detailing the reach of the NSA into other countries’ digital infrastructure. In July, the Washington Post published a story, including a snapshot of a document dated from April, describing agreements between the U.S. and telecom companies to allow for the collection of data as it passes through fiber-optic cables around the world. The Wall Street Journal later expanded on the story, including that the NSA has the potential to touch as much as 75 percent of the world’s total internet traffic.
These revelations were distressing, but did little to spur much in the way of action among foreign leaders. In September, however, it got personal for many heads of state who ally themselves with the U.S. Ahead of a meeting of the G-20 economic forum and the United Nations General Assembly, Glenn Greenwald, speaking with the Brazilian press, revealed that part of the NSA’s operations included reading the emails of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff and Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto. This lead to Rousseff both cancelling a high-profile trip to the United States and slamming the American practice before the U.N. — only minutes before President Obama was to speak.
Now this week the Guardian is reporting, based off of the documents from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, that the NSA at one point was allegedly listening in on the phone calls of at least 35 world leaders. German chancellor Angela Merkel, who had previously been in hot water among her constituents for cooperation with the NSA, personally called Obama to answer to reports that her mobile phone had been tapped. French president Francois Hollande has likewise called the president this week to complain about the NSA’s collection of metadata from France’s citizens’ phonecalls.
The harsh words that were to be expected as face-saving measures in light of the very public accusations now seem to be turning into action, however. Brazil’s legislature got the ball rolling through considering proposals that would require companies wishing to do business in Brazil have their host servers located within Brazil itself, preventing interested parties from tapping into data streams at key junctures. Germany now seems to be getting in on the act as well. Deutsche Telekom, which the German government owns a 32 percent stake in, wants its fellow German telecommunications companies to team up to shield local traffic from foreign intelligence sources.
The potential ‘Balkanization’ of the Internet is in and of itself not a new thing, having been used as a term at least as far back as 1998. China is the most prominent example of cutting off from the rest of the world wide web, with Chinese netizens constantly stymied by the “Great Firewall.” Other regimes that aren’t particular fans of openness have followed suit, including Iran’s blocking of most social media sites and developing an intranet that would replace the internet in total.
What has changed, however, is the odds that more open countries such as Germany and other Western states will get in on the act as well. “Today, the Internet is in danger of becoming like the European train system,” warns Sascha Meinrath, vice president of the New American Foundation, “where varying voltage and 20 different types of signaling technologies force operators to stop and switch systems or even to another locomotive, resulting in delays, inefficiencies, and higher costs. Netizens would fall under a complex array of different jurisdictions imposing conflicting mandates and conferring conflicting rights.”
Thinking of the internet more concretely as a system that has borders — as the NSA has begun to — will lead to a headache for the observers and the observed alike, Meinrath argues. “Already, a German citizen accessing a New York City data center via a Chinese fiber line may find her data covered by an array of conflicting legal requirements requiring privacy and active surveillance at the same time,” he explains.
Many of the retaliatory proposals are still in their infancy, it’s worth noting, and still have a way to go before they result in a true fragmenting of the Internet. Brazil and Germany, for example, it seems are teaming up and going to the United Nations to try to develop more political pressure to change the way data can and can’t be tapped by intelligence agencies. According to the report from Foreign Policy, the effort would involve a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, which would be non-binding. That would not exactly be a disaster for the United States, but extremely embarrassing on the world stage.
What that vote could lead to, however, is a resurgence of initiatives that seek to put more control of the Internet into the hands of governments rather than keeping it free and open. Russia, China, India and other countries backed a push at the International Telecommunications Union last year to have the body take control of most of the functions ICANN performs currently. American conservatives dubbed it as the Obama administration handing over the Internet to the U.N. — even though the U.S. opposed and continues to oppose such a move. Last year’s attempt ended with a much weakened proposal from developing states that the U.S. still refused to allow consensus on. In the face of the growing fear that the U.S. has too much power concentrated in terms of its dominance of cyberspace, however, these proposals could come back and with the European support they’ve previously been lacking.