The Real Threat to Internet Freedom Isn't the United Nations

What's to come?
Nov. 28 2012 7:30 AM

The Real Threat to Internet Freedom Isn't the United Nations

Governments are cooperating on surveillance in other, less obvious ways.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 22 2014 2:27 PM Facebook Made $595 Million in the U.K. Last Year. It Paid $0 in Taxes
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 22 2014 1:01 PM The Surprisingly Xenophobic Origins of Wonder Bread
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 10:39 PM Avengers: Age of Ultron Looks Like a Fun, Sprawling, and Extremely Satisfying Sequel
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 2:59 PM Netizen Report: Twitter Users Under Fire in Mexico, Venezuela, Turkey
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.