The Real Threat to Internet Freedom Isn't the United Nations
Governments are cooperating on surveillance in other, less obvious ways.
2012 has been a big year for Internet activism: The mass protests against new cybersecurity and copyright laws seen as a threat to online freedom—like SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA—were unprecedented. In this latest case, however, the knee-jerk furor over the ITU conference seems to have been sparked by sensationalized tub-thumping that has overstated the threat it poses to freedom of expression. Given that there is such strong opposition to the handful of proposals related to content filtering and monitoring (including from the U.S. government), there is a slim chance these measures will ultimately be adopted by the ITU. Any new regulations have to be arrived at by consensus, meaning, as the ITU’s secretary general has said, “whatever one single country does not accept will not pass.”
But regardless of what happens with the ITU summit, a new era of augmented international cooperation over policing the Internet is on the horizon. That does not mean secretive U.N. governance of the Web—but instead an increasingly centralized and homogenized international surveillance infrastructure, with more sophisticated attempts to monitor online communications and closer cooperation between states when it comes to retaining data and tracking down suspects.
In a report published last month, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime called for greater surveillance of the Web internationally to help combat terrorism. The report outlined a series of practical measures aimed at helping legislators in countries worldwide to keep pace with new technologies. It illustrated how the use of Trojan spyware can help bypass encryption, called for a universally agreed framework for data retention, weighed up the pros and cons of blocking certain websites, and grumbled about how privacy legislation in some unnamed countries can inhibit the ability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to share information with both national and foreign counterparts.
At the same time, the International Chamber of Commerce is calling for the introduction of centralized multicountry surveillance centers to help governments intercept communications and obtain data that are increasingly stored in cloud servers in a foreign jurisdiction. The ICC, a highly influential world business organization, would like to see a global standardization of surveillance and data retention laws, which is in line with what governments and telecom companies are already quietly working toward.
National laws will remain crucial when it comes to issues of oversight and accountability of how government agencies are allowed to control data flows and peer into communications. For instance, no matter what the outcome of the ITU conference—even if it were approve new regulations enshrining user privacy and human rights—countries such as Russia, Iran, and China will continue on a path towards constraining and controlling the Internet within their borders as much as is technically possible. But national surveillance programs will gradually, inevitably become important features of cross-border policing, with cybersecurity efforts resulting in pooled resources and greater collaboration between telecom companies and law enforcement agencies in countries across the world. One example of how this is already happening can be found in a recent report by the Washington-based Telecommunications Industry Association. The TIA, a trade group that represents telecom companies and works closely with law enforcement agencies like the FBI, has been pressuring India to create a “centralized monitoring system” and “install state-of-the-art legal intercept equipment.” (Indian authorities seem to have responded—in September they announced plans for a new “cyber surveillance agency” to monitor the Web.)
It’s not all plain sailing for governments—national or international—in pursuit of more control, though. By design the Internet is a contested terrain; for every act of surveillance or content blocking, there is a tool for circumvention. Complex encryption and anonymity software is almost by the day becoming more accessible, so unless countries hit the kill switch and shut off the Internet entirely, Web users will find ways to evade the prying eyes of online overlords. That’s why any attempt to tame the Internet’s anarchic spirit from the outset seems ultimately doomed to fail—and why the anonymous trolls and the vigilante hackers will still have a home, at least for now, like squatters who can’t be evicted.
Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports from the intersection of surveillance, national security, and privacy for Slate's Future Tense blog. He is also a Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation.