Financial Times Commentary: Companies need to work harder to keep the internet open

My commentary published last week in the Financial Times begins:

Governments and companies are engaged in a battle to determine who can do what on the internet, and the outcome will reverberate around the world.Google’s troubles in Europe over privacy, antitrust and the “right to be forgotten” are one example of this struggle. Multinational companies’ tussles with the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ over access to user data are another.

At the same time some democracies and companies are working together against a coalition that includes most of the world’s authoritarian regimes in a struggle over how the internet should be governed, by whom, and to what extent states should be able to replicate physical borders in cyberspace. The outcomes of these clashes will affect everybody who uses the internet, determining whether it remains free and open as intended or whether we are left with a cyber space that is “Balkanised” and fragmented.

After explaining to the un-converted why a free and open Internet is important, I continue:

Democracies and multinationals (with Google vocally in the lead) have appointed themselves champions of a “free and open” internet, despite a widening trust deficit with the public exacerbated by the revelations ofEdward Snowden, the former NSA contractor turned whistleblower. They are working with experts and activists from around the world to promote what they call a “multi-stakeholder model” of internet governance and policy making. Here, business and “civil society” groups take a seat at the table on equal terms with governments to make decisions about the future of the internet.

China and Russia lead the camp asserting the sovereignty of governments. Both have made clear that using the internet to organise political opposition is a threat to “national security”. China’s internet is in effect an “intranet” that connects with the global system only at controlled choke points. Iran is working to build a “halal” or “pure” internet. President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is moving in a similar direction.

But..

If the “free and open” camp cannot do better to align words and deeds, it will lose. Further damaging revelations will emerge as long as people have reason to suspect their rights to privacy and freedom of expression are being violated.

Democracies and companies that claim to champion a free and open Internet are not doing enough to earn public trust. The piece concludes:

For companies, the first step is to make public commitments to respect users’ rights, then implement those commitments in a transparent, accountable and independently verifiable manner. A grouping of democracies including the US and the UK, known as the Freedom Online Coalition, should implement policies that support a free and open global internet. These encompass greater transparency about surveillance practices, with genuinely “effective domestic oversight”.

Democracies’ pursuit of short-term political interests can contribute to fragmentation. Take Europe’s recent “right to be forgotten” ruling allowing citizens to request sensitive information be omitted from search results. Activists from Egypt to Hong Kong fear copycat steps in their countries will strengthen barriers to global information flows.

If even democracies cannot be trusted as stewards of an open internet, the power of all governments must be kept in check by companies and civil society through processes based in a common commitment to keep cyber space free and interconnected.

But if companies are to win civil society over to their side, activists must be able to trust them not to violate their privacy or restrict speech. Strengthening trust in public and private institutions that shape the internet should be a priority for anyone with an interest – commercial, moral or personal – in keeping global networks open and free.

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Containing Weapons of Mass Surveillance

My latest article in Foreign Policy argues that President Obama is on the right track with Monday’s executive order, but the United States needs to get tougher on the global digital arms race. I conclude:

President Obama has certainly taken a step in the right direction with Monday’s executive order. But the executive branch and Congress will need to do much more if they want to stem electronic abuses against activists in Iran and Syria — let alone anywhere else. It’s time to take decisive action to stop American and other multinationals from aiding and abetting the wrong side in the global digital arms race.

Read the whole thing here.

The article contains a late-breaking update. After my deadline had passed, I managed to reach a spokesperson at the Department of Commerce, who confirmed that an investigation of Blue Coat is “ongoing.” Blue Coat is the California-based company whose surveillance and censorship devices turned up in Syria last year. I described the circumstances in the article as follows:

Last October, the international activist group Telecomix published log files taken from 13 Blue Coat devices deployed by the Syrian Telecommunications Establishment to monitor and block users’ activity. Facing scrutiny over apparent violation of a strict U.S. embargo against technology sales to Syria, Blue Coat later told the Wall Street Journal that these devices were shipped to a Dubai reseller that claimed the final destination as Iraq. In December, the U.S. Department of Commerce placed restrictions on a person and an entity in the United Arab Emirates for having sold the devices to Syria. But questions remain about what Blue Coat really knew or didn’t know, because after installation in Syria the devices transmitted regular automatic status messages back to the company’s computer servers. Blue Coat claims that it doesn’t monitor the origin of such messages.

Internet Freedom Starts at Home

I have just written an essay for Foreign Policy on the Global Online Freedom Act and why the United States needs to do a better job of practicing at home what it preaches for the world. Here is how it begins:

“An electronic curtain has fallen around Iran,” U.S. President Barack Obama warned in a recent video message marking the Persian New Year. Government censorship and surveillance, he said, make it more difficult for Iranians to “access the information that they want,” denying “the rest of the world the benefit of interacting with the Iranian people.”

Implied though not explicit in Obama’s remarks was the idea that if Iran’s Internet were freer and more open, Iran’s relationship with the world generally — and the United States in particular — would be different. Cases like Iran are the main driver of Washington’s bipartisan consensus around the idea that a free and open global Internet is in the United States’ strategic interest.

Yet more than two years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave her first speech declaring “Internet freedom” to be a major component of U.S. foreign policy, it turns out that many of the most sophisticated tools used to suppress online free speech and dissent around the world are actually Made in the USA. American corporations are major suppliers of software and hardware used by all sorts of governments to carry out censorship and surveillance — and not just dictatorships. Inconveniently, governments around the democratic world are pushing to expand their own censorship and surveillance powers as they struggle to address genuine problems related to cybercrime, cyberwar, child protection, and intellectual property.

Even more inconveniently, the U.S. government is the biggest and most powerful customer of American-made surveillance technology, shaping the development of those technologies as well as the business practices and norms for public-private collaboration around them. As long as the U.S. government continues to support the development of a surveillance-technology industry that clearly lacks concern for the human rights and civil liberties implications of its business — even rewarding secretive and publicly unaccountable behavior by these companies — the world’s dictators will remain well supplied by a robust global industry.

Click here to read the rest.