Many governments around the world have expressed outrage over the National Security Agency's use of the Internet as a spying platform. But the possible response may have an unforeseen consequence: It may actually lead to more online surveillance, according to Internet experts.
Some governments, led most recently by Brazil, have reacted to recent disclosures about NSA surveillance by proposing a redesign of Internet architecture. The goal would be to give governments more control over how the Internet operates within their own borders.
But privacy advocates warn that some of the changes under consideration could actually undermine Internet freedom, not strengthen it.
"Unfortunately, there is enormous blowback," says Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert who has worked closely with Britain's Guardian newspaper in reporting on NSA surveillance activities.
Schneier says some of those who advocate changes in Internet governance are acting unwisely, though he blames the NSA for having undermined global confidence in the Internet and prompting ill-advised reform moves.
"The NSA's actions embolden these people to say, 'We need more sovereign control,' " Schneier says. "This is bad. We really need a global Internet."
An Absence Of Government Control
Those who have closely followed the Internet, such as Milton Mueller of Syracuse University, say its free and open character is due largely to the absence of government control.
"The reason the Internet worked, the reason it created this massive amount of innovation, is precisely because, for a brief period of about 10 years, it just completely overcame the telecommunications system of national boundaries," Mueller says. "It created a virtual space that was completely interconnected and globalized, and governments had to react to that after the fact."
To the extent one country has dominated the Internet, it's been the United States. The only organization with a significant Internet governance function, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), was set up by the United States. Also, the companies most associated with the Internet around the world, such as Microsoft, Google and Facebook, are U.S. firms.
Prior to the uproar over NSA surveillance on the Internet, an argument could be made that American control of the Internet had served the cause of Internet freedom.
"In the area of free speech, I think it's been a great thing that the United States has had this hugely disproportionate role in providing the Internet's infrastructure," says Andrew McLaughlin, an Internet entrepreneur and formerly the deputy chief technology officer for the United States. "Our First Amendment traditions have meant that freedom of speech and freedom of expression have prevailed and really characterized the Internet globally."
Suspicion Of American Surveillance
But McLaughlin sees that record now in jeopardy.
"We've kind of blown it," he says. "The global fear and suspicion about American surveillance is pushing countries to centralize their [Internet] infrastructures and get the U.S. out of the picture. Ultimately, I think that will have negative consequences for free speech as well as for protection of privacy."
Some of the countries pushing for more international control over the Internet were never all that supportive of Internet freedom, like Russia and China. But they've now been joined by countries like Brazil, whose president, Dilma Rousseff, was furious when she read reports that she was herself an NSA target.
Speaking at the United Nations last month, Rousseff called for a new "multilateral framework" for Internet governance and new measures "to ensure the effective protection of data that travel through the Web."
At home, Rousseff has suggested that Brazil partially disconnect from U.S.-based parts of the Internet and take steps to keep Brazilians' online data stored in Brazil, supposedly out of the NSA's reach.
But Schneier says such moves would lead to "increased Balkanization" of the Internet.
One indication of the discontent with the dominant U.S. role on the Internet came at a meeting in Uruguay last week. Directors of major Internet organizations, including ICANN, endorsed a call for all governments to be treated equally in Internet governance.
The ICANN president, Fadi Chehade, actually praised Rousseff for her "leadership" and personally backed her effort to challenge the United States on Internet governance issues.
In Europe, policymakers have discussed the possibility of writing new rules for how information can flow around the world. Some proposals would introduce restrictions on how U.S. companies like Google can operate overseas.
Mueller, who teaches at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies, says such a move would be costly.
"Is it practical in the sense that you can create regulations that block off trade in these information services? Yeah, you can do that," Mueller says. "There will be massive sacrifices of economic efficiency. But you can introduce barriers, definitely."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All the news about NSA spying on the Internet has been especially upsetting for people outside the United States. They don't have the same protection from NSA surveillance that Americans have. In response, many other governments are now saying it's time to downgrade the dominant U.S. role on the Internet.
But as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, some of those changes could undermine Internet privacy, not protect it.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: First, a bit of history from Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. What's revolutionary about the Internet, he says, is that it grew so fast, no one had a chance to get control over it.
MILTON MUELLER: The reason the Internet worked, the reason it created this massive amount of innovation is precisely because, for a brief period of about 10 years, it just completely overcame the telecommunications system of national boundaries. It created a virtual space that was completely interconnected and globalized, and governments had to react to that after the fact.
GJELTEN: To the extent one country dominated the Internet, it was the United States. The only organization with any Internet governance function - it controlled the addressing system - was set up by the United States. And the companies most associated with the Internet around the world - Microsoft, Google, Facebook - are U.S. companies.
Andrew McLaughlin is an Internet entrepreneur and former deputy chief technology officer at the White House. He thinks there's freedom and openness on the Internet, in part, because it was a U.S. creation.
ANDREW MCLAUGHLIN: Now in the area of free speech, I think it's been a great thing that the United States has had this hugely disproportionate role in providing the Internet's infrastructure because our First Amendment traditions have meant that the U.S. tradition of freedom of speech and freedom of expression has prevailed and really has characterized the Internet globally.
GJELTEN: But if fans of the Internet around the world have been grateful to the United States until now, some of that good will has been undone by news of NSA spying.
MCLAUGHLIN: We've now, kind of, blown it on surveillance, which is to say that the global fear and suspicion about American surveillance is pushing countries to centralize their infrastructures, get the U.S. out of the picture. And I think that ultimately will have negative consequences for free speech as well as for protection of privacy.
GJELTEN: The prime mover demanding changes in the way the Internet is governed is Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. She was furious to learn she was, herself, a target of NSA surveillance.
PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Foreign language spoken)
GJELTEN: Speaking at the United Nations last month, Rousseff called for changes in the governance of the Internet. At home, she has suggested that Brazil partially disconnect from U.S.-based parts of the Internet, so Brazilians' online data would be stored in Brazil, supposedly out of the NSA's reach.
The irony here is that putting the Internet more under the control of individual governments may actually leave the citizens in some of those countries more vulnerable to surveillance, if not by the United States, then by their own governments.
As a cybersecurity expert, Bruce Schneier has helped uncover some of the NSA's secret surveillance activity. He's nevertheless alarmed that some people have reacted to the NSA disclosures by proposing to break up the Internet.
BRUCE SCHNEIER: This is bad. All right, this is bad for the Internet. We really need a global Internet. And the NSA's actions embolden these people to say we need more sovereign control. So unfortunately, there's an enormous blowback - which I think can affect the way the Internet works today.
GJELTEN: Last week, the drive to take the Internet away from U.S. control got a huge boost, when the head of the Internet addressing group - the one set up by the United States - endorsed a move to drop its official connection to the U.S. government.
Besides these proposals to change the architecture and governance of the Internet, there's talk of regulating how information can flow around the world, restrictions, for example, on how U.S. companies like Google can operate in other countries. Milton Mueller of Syracuse says that would be costly.
MUELLER: Is it practical in a sense that you can create regulations that block off trade in these information services? Yeah, you can do that. There will be massive sacrifices of economic efficiency. But you can introduce barriers, definitely.
GJELTEN: So, people around the world are angry that the NSA has used the Internet for spying. But what to do about it?
The Internet has largely been a free and open space because of the way it was set up. Changing it - even to protect Internet users' freedom - might actually backfire.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.