Distrust and the post-Snowden Internet

Surveillance dominates the global debate on Internet policy, and erodes trust in the US, other governments and companies

FREEDOM LEADER? Revelations of mass surveillance shaped the global debate on Internet policy and put to question the US' moral authority in promoting Internet freedom. Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

BALI, Indonesia – “I feel that I cannot really use the Internet freely knowing that the US is surveilling on my actions online and that the US government is actually setting the bar for governments like Jordan when it comes to surveillance.”

These frank remarks of Jordanian activist Reem Al-Masri addressed to a US State Department official illustrated how revelations of mass surveillance shifted the global debate on Internet policy, and eroded trust in governments and companies.

The exchange occurred during the United Nations’ 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held here from October 22 to 25. The annual IGF is the leading global forum and a unique venue for governments, business, the technology industry, and civil society groups to discuss public policy issues related to the Internet.

The fallout from the leaks of former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden dominated this year’s IGF, weakening America’s rhetoric of promoting Internet freedom amid reports it spied on citizens. Civil society groups also highlighted the dangers of national and corporate surveillance.

Activists hailed this year’s IGF for putting a sharper focus on human rights. For the first time, a large-group session on human rights was held along with more discussions on gender. Civil society groups and technology experts presented best practices on using Internet research and activism to fight filtering and repressive laws in countries like Pakistan and the Philippines.

While the IGF does not make binding decisions, the discussions mirrored perspectives on the state of global Internet freedom and how this affects ordinary Internet users.

Here are the highlights of IGF 2013:

US loses moral authority over surveillance

Once viewed as a leader in advocating for basic freedoms, the US was on the defensive over surveillance. Delegates questioned its moral ascendancy to call out suppressive practices in other nations while it is hard-pressed to explain reports of spying.

As the IGF was held in Bali, the US drew condemnation from allies Germany and France over reports it spied on their leaders and citizens.

Michael Harris, director for advocacy at the London-based Index on Censorship, wrote about the challenges for the US in the post-Snowden era.

“The US and other Western democracies were on the back foot, in stark contrast to their confident promotion of net freedom in Baku [in the IGF 2012]. Without openness, increased transparency and an end to mass surveillance, it’s hard to see how they will regain their moral authority, leaving a huge vacuum at the heart of these debates. A vacuum that others – in particular China – are willing to fill.”

“The IGF should give once confident advocates of net freedom serious pause for thought,” said Harris.

Lee Hibbard from the Council of Europe said rebuilding trust is also a key point of introspection in Europe.

“Who is watching the watchers? Do we need more democratic oversight and transparency? Are the laws overly broad? Are they too vague? Can we trust those people who conduct surveillance,” Hubbard said during the human rights session.  

US officials said they acknowledge the concerns raised about surveillance but civil society groups were dissatisfied with their explanations and assurances. Activists pointed out that the scale of the surveillance was alarming and put privacy and free expression under threat.

RESTORING TRUST. Google's Ross LaJeunesse joins the focus session on human rights, saying the company is working to regain the trust of users after the PRISM revelations. Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

Companies, authoritarian states also liable

Rights groups though were quick to stress that government surveillance is not the only threat to an open and free Internet. They called attention to the role of companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft in collecting and handing over user data.

Google’s Ross LaJeunesse said the company is “very, very aware” that it “did damage to the faith” of many users but is working hard to assure them that “they can continue to trust us with their information.”

“We spent almost two years secretly negotiating with the US government to allow us to reveal the numbers of national security letter requests we get …. You can’t really have a debate about these issues when you don’t even know the facts which is why we sued the US government along with some companies to try to force them to allow us to even talk about this in the way we want to,” said LaJeunesse, Google head of free expression and international relations.

Virat Bhatia of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) admitted that there is a loss of trust in institutions due to surveillance but sought to defend corporations from criticism. He is a member of the ICC Business Action to Support the Information Society.

“Compliance or compulsion to provide information under the license structured in any country should never be confused with cooperation. It’s not voluntary. This is information that if asked is under the legal requirement and you have to provide that. How much you can disclose is also under the legal requirement. That is the challenge,” Bhatia told Rappler.

He said this is why the business sector participates in the IGF to voice its concerns in crafting policy.

While pressing the US and Western governments and companies over surveillance, activists said the issue should not overshadow physical threats against human rights defenders offline. 

Harris said during the human rights session, “If we totally ignore what authoritarian states are doing and buy into their narrative, which is ‘You are all the same, you are all hypocrites,’ we very easily forget that right now, today, across the globe, activists are being physically attacked and imprisoned and often murdered for standing up and speaking out.”

RESEARCH IMPORTANT. Shahzad Ahmad of Bytes for All, Pakistan stresses the importance of Internet research to help civil society groups back up their campaign against oppression online. Photo by Ayee Macaraig/Rappler

Civil society can push back, replicate best practices

Despite a common sentiment of disappointment, civil society groups took the Snowden controversy as an opportunity to widen the debate. They said the Internet helped them push for their causes and hold other sectors accountable.

Shahzad Ahmad of human rights group Bytes for All, Pakistan showed how research can help civil society’s campaign for Internet freedom. Ahmad’s group worked with the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab to produce research that backed its case against the Pakistani government, which they found to be using Netsweeper filtering devices.

“We were able to give hard, authentic evidence that the government is filtering the Internet. They will not come and say it out loud in the public. To hold them accountable, it is important you have evidence and we used this evidence backed by arguments to make a much stronger case in the court of law,” Ahmad told Rappler in an interview.

Another best practice cited in the IGF is Philippine civil society’s pushback against the anti-cybercrime law in 2012. Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, said Filipino netizens helped stop the implementation of the law still pending before the Supreme Court.

“That’s actually been a very, very positive action, a strategy that maybe the others can also follow suit,” Venkiteswaran said.

The IGF raised difficult questions on surveillance and the future of the Internet after the Snowden revelations. There may be no formal consensus but all parties agreed that only collaboration will best remedy the distrust.

The forum is over but Jordan’s Reem Al-Masri said the soul-searching will have to continue way beyond the closing ceremonies.

“If they’re really genuine in their endeavor of spreading freedom of expression, they need to redirect their efforts, what they’re doing outside inwards in order for them to set a global standard of what surveillance and freedom of speech mean, how surveillance can actually protect rights and freedom of speech,” she told Rappler. – Rappler.com