Instead of blaming Snowden, Washington must thank him
Authoritarian governments have good reasons to fear Twitter and Facebook, over which they exercise far less control. It’s probably not a coincidence that LiveJournal, Russia’s favorite platform, suddenly had maintenance issues – and was thus unavailable for general use – at the very same time that a Russian court announced its verdict to the popular blogger-activist Alexei Navalny. For all the concerns about Americanization and surveillance, US-based services like Facebook or Twitter still offer better protection for freedom of expression than their Russian, Chinese or Iranian counterparts. The latter censor more and, as the LiveJournal example shows – LiveJournal belongs to a Russian oligarch – they can go offline at politically convenient times. If, as a political dissident, you had to choose between organizing your protest on Facebook or Vkontakte, Facebook’s Russian equivalent, you’d be far better off doing it on Facebook. Governments of less democratic regimes will surely explore the anti-US populism generated by Snowden revelations to leave protesters just one – domestic – option.
This is the real tragedy of America’s “Internet freedom agenda”: it’s going to be the dissidents in China and Iran who will pay for the hypocrisy that drove it from the very beginning. America has managed to advance its communications-related interests by claiming high moral ground and using ambiguous terms like “Internet freedom” to hide many profound contradictions in its own policies. On matters of “Internet freedom” – democracy promotion rebranded under a sexier name – America enjoyed some legitimacy as it claimed that it didn’t engage in the kinds of surveillance that it itself condemned in China or Iran. Likewise, on matters of cyberattacks, it could go after China’s cyber-espionage or Iran’s cyber-attacks because it assured the world that it engaged in neither.
Both statements were demonstrably false but lack of specific evidence has allowed America to buy some time and influence. These days are gone. Today, the rhetoric of “Internet freedom agenda” looks as trustworthy as George Bush’s “freedom agenda” after Abu Ghraib. Washington will have to rebuild its policies from scratch. But, instead of blaming Snowden, Washington must thank him. He only exposed the shaky foundations of already unsustainable policies. These policies, built around vaporous and ambiguous terms like “Internet freedom” and “cyberwar” would have never survived the complexities of global politics anyway.
All objects and appliances turn “smart” and get connected
What is to be done? Let’s start with surveillance. So far, most European politicians have reached for the low-hanging fruit – law – thinking that if only they can better regulate American companies – for example, by forcing them to disclose how much data and when they share with NSA – this problem will go away. This is a rather short-sighted, naïve view that reduces a gigantic philosophical problem – the future of privacy – to seemingly manageable size of data retention directives. If only things were that simple! Our current predicaments start at the level of ideology, not bad policies or their poor implementation. This is not to oppose more regulation of technology companies – Europe should have done this a decade ago instead of getting caught in the heady rhetoric of “cloud computing” – but only to point out that the task ahead is far more intellectually demanding.