Snowden and the Fate of the Internet

July 28th, 2013 by Dylan Leave a reply »

A Guardian/Observer article titled Edward Snowden’s not the story. The fate of the internet is has turned up dozens of times on my Facebook and Twitter timelines and is, as I write this, the number two link on Reddit.

I haven’t written anything about the Snowden/NSA story although I’ve talked about it on Discourse a bit and engaged in a few Twitter discussions on the subject.

The title of the article is correct – Snowden isn’t the story, and perhaps the fate of the internet is. But I also don’t think the thrust of the story is right, and I’m frustrated that in most stories about Snowden’s revelations it seems that the elephant remains undisturbed in the corner.

The Guardian story, and most stories I’ve seen on Snowden’s leaks, have focused on the internet providers listed in the NSA Prism slides. The initial Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald grabbed the most attention by claiming that the NSA had “direct access” to servers at Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others. Subsequent releases don’t appear to support that claim. Instead painting Prism as more of a streamlining operation – simplifying the process of applying for interception orders and then receiving the mandated data from providers.

Focus has effectively, and unreasonably I think, remained largely on the internet companies at the centre of the scandal. Later headlines were generated with the sensationalist claims that Microsoft “handed the NSA access to encrypted messages” while ignoring why that was the case.

These companies have not freely chosen to hand over data to the NSA whenever they are asked. They are given no option in the law – and that’s the issue that still seems to be largely brushed aside in news coverage of the NSA scandal. The companies involved aren’t just throwing their users’ data at the NSA and, arguably, the NSA isn’t doing anything it’s not supposed to. The laws to make this possible are deliberate and secretive.

Companies like Google and Microsoft can’t reasonably be expected to refuse to co-operate with US law – who knows what the consequences may be? And the highly secretive nature of the laws involved wouldn’t offer them the opportunity to publicise their fight.

So while the media focuses on Snowden, the NSA and various internet companies, they are largely ignoring the legal reality that all this is occurring within. Google, Microsoft and the rest are treated as co-conspirators when in reality they are as much victims of the law as the US (and global) citizens who have been spied on however the media have barely moved on from the initial suggestion that internet companies where happily letting the NSA rifle through their records whenever they pleased – something that’s not supported by any of the leaked information.