US, China, Google on the spot over spying
BALI, Indonesia – “It’s incredibly depressing watching the Chinese lecture the US government on mass surveillance.”
Civil society leaders took to task representatives from the United States and China over surveillance during the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum (IGF) here on Wednesday, October 23. The IGF is the leading global multi-stakeholder forum for the discussion of public policy issues related to the Internet.
The workshop titled “Oppression Online: Rights and Restrictions on the Network” sparked a heated debate, with a US State Department official booed for his defense of America’s surveillance activities.
A delegate from China also criticized the US panelist but in turn drew flak from civil society leaders for “lecturing” on the US despite Beijing’s own human rights record.
The exchange started when Scott Busby, US deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, responded to delegates’ questions about news reports on revelations of whistleblower Edward Snowden. (READ: Snowden, Asia and the web)
Busby said that surveillance done by the US is for “limited purposes” like “identifying terrorist threats and criminal activities.”
“I think that’s very different from the sort of surveillance that takes place in China, Vietnam or other places,” he said, drawing boos from some audience members.
“Some of the surveillance is classic spy stuff that all governments do in terms of trying to find out what each other is thinking, planning and that sort of thing. But I think you can distinguish what the US has done from what China has done,” Busby added.
A delegate from China who did not identify himself took exception to the response. He said Busby should have just discussed the US’ “own problems” rather than cite restrictions in China, Vietnam and Cuba in his opening remarks.
“It’s typical practice of double standard. You should have started with the state of [US] surveillance which has been a hot topic of the IGF since day 1 …. We admit we are not perfect but on the other hand, we always say you have to take a mirror and look at yourself [to see] whether you are clean or not,” said the Chinese delegate.
Yet panelist Michael Harris, head of advocacy at the London-based Index on Censorship, called out the delegate for his own statements.
“[The Chinese delegates] turned up because they thought with the word ‘oppression’ in the [workshop] title, we will be talking about China. We will be talking about the fact that freedom is virtually non-existent in China, the fact that you’re rounding up your leading bloggers, the fact that many of your most talented individuals have fled such as Ai Weiwei,” Harris said in reference to the Chinese artist and dissident.
“It’s incredibly depressing watching the Chinese lecture the US government on mass surveillance. It’s an incredibly depressing sight to watch when we’ve got the major leading nations of the world all engaging in gross systematic mass surveillance.”
Harris called on civil society members to challenge governments and corporations to use best practices like executive and judicial oversight.
“It just shows states that they cannot act with impunity the whole time,” Harris said, drawing applause from the crowd.
‘Squaring surveillance with net freedom’
Amid the scrutiny, Busby said the US is already eyeing policy changes to address concerns over its spying activities. (READ: 'Surveillance hampers freedom')
“We’re squaring our surveillance policies and practices with our Internet freedom agenda. We’re in the process of doing that. President [Barack] Obama created a review board looking at reforms we can undertake on our surveillance practices and policies,” Busby said.
Delegate Reem Al-Masri, who first asked Busby about surveillance, said she was dismayed by his response. She works for 7iber, an independent media website censored in Jordan.
“The fact that the State Department representative was not able to self-criticize the acts of his government and still point to China to compare the US practices, I find it disappointing because if the US keeps preaching about democracy and spreading it in ‘autocratic’ countries then you should stop doing what you’re doing if China is your standard,” she told Rappler after the workshop.
She added that the US set a bad example that other countries can point to in justifying their surveillance activities.
“That they’re still practicing the same rhetoric in dividing democratic and undemocratic countries is really mind-boggling. It’s like living in denial on the practices that their government is doing. Just because the world considers them as democratic, it feels like them doing [mass surveillance] is no problem but other countries not considered democratic [doing it] becomes a problem.”
For Harris, civil society groups and governments must work to put in place more legal protections for whistleblowers, and implement global standards on freedom of expression.
Google’s 3 tools vs oppression online
Google also was not spared in the workshop. Ross Young, manager of Google’s public policy and government affairs, faced questions from bloggers and journalists on turning over user data to the US government in the PRISM program.
“If we are requested and the legal process is robust and according to rule of law to disclose that, then we’re obliged to do so and that’s the way the law works,” he said.
“[But] we have stated very clearly that there is no back door, side door, any other door. We’re the first company to produce transparency reports ….and we’re taking the US government to court to increase transparency.”
Young also said Google has 3 tools to help fight oppression online:
1. Constitute – a rights-based initiative providing a searchable comparison of all of the world’s written constitutions that allows users to compare different countries’ approach to human rights and freedom of expression.
2. Digital Attack Map - a live map of distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS) showing the countries where the attacks originate and the destination of the attacks. It also provides a timeline of key attacks that occurred in the past.
3. Project Shield – an initiative that allows websites to use Google’s technology to protect themselves from DDOS attacks. “This is still in the testing phase. We invite webmasters serving independent news, human rights and election-related content sites to apply to join the next round of testers.”
“There’s a range of actions we’re taking in terms of the security of your data. We take that very seriously,” said Young. – Rappler.com