Surveillance: Snowden NSA Controversy

Whose Fault is it if China and Iran Restrict Free Speech? NSA's---Of Course

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, November 18, 2013, 3:23 PM

That, at least, seems to be what Ken Roth---executive director of Human Rights Watch---is arguing in this essay on the New York Review of Books web site. Entitled "The NSA's Global Threat to Free Speech," the piece is devoted to decrying not merely the implications for privacy of NSA spying but what Roth terms "the global threat that the NSA’s spying poses to freedom of expression over the Internet."

How, you might ask, does NSA spying threaten free expression worldwide? It's not just that "privacy and free expression are intimately linked," Roth informs us---though that fact certainly represents his starting point. His larger point is that "after the revelations about NSA surveillance, many countries have said they may require Internet companies to keep data about their citizens on servers within their own borders. If that becomes standard practice, it will be easier for repressive governments to monitor Internet communications." Having their citizens' data stored locally will give them easier access to it, and "granting national governments easy access to user information may enable them not only to invade privacy but also to suppress criticism and unearth dissent." In other words, if China and Iran repress their citizens, blame NSA.

Roth goes on to argue that NSA's spying is likely to upset internet governance in a fashion that will erode free speech:

now that the United States has proven such an unreliable guardian of our privacy, there have been renewed calls to replace the current system [of internet governance] with a UN agency such as the International Telecommunications Union. But few believe that such a system would protect free speech on the Internet because it would likely defer to governments that want to prioritize national sovereignty over the free flow of information and ideas. Greater national control would make it easier for governments to wall off national Internets, as China has tried to do with its Great Firewall and Iran has threatened to do with a “national information network,” enabling censorship and undermining the powerful potential of cyberspace to connect people around the world.

The NSA’s electronic spying has also done much to discredit the US government’s reputation as an outspoken champion of Internet freedom. Most notably under the leadership of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US has regularly criticized countries for detaining dissident bloggers or users of social media. But today, although the United States continues to respect freedom of expression on and off line, that virtue is easily overshadowed by Washington’s indifference to Internet privacy. And even America’s reputation for respecting free speech is undermined when the Obama administration tries to extradite and prosecute Edward Snowden for an alleged security breach that many see as legitimate whistleblowing.

I confess myself bewildered by Roth's essay. If his point were merely that the Snowden revelations have eroded the US's international position on matters of internet governance in favor of countries that don't value freedom, he would certainly be right. And if he were arguing that at a strategic and tactical level, the US should protect privacy globally better so as to keep data on its own servers and outside of the jurisdiction of repressive governments and so as to keep internet governance as it is, I would take his point as one strategic consideration that leaders should perhaps price into decisions aggressively to collect intelligence overseas.

But Roth seems to be making a more fundamental argument here than that this is merely a strategic blunder that will accrue to the benefit of human rights abusers. He starts with the assertion that NSA spying is itself a threat to free expression. He later complains that the "NSA’s overreaching endangers free speech." Throughout the piece, he seems to claim a direct causal relationship between NSA privacy invasions and the erosion of free speech. And he concludes: "If the United States wants to preserve the Internet as a vital and free network for connecting people the world over, it will need to reform its own surveillance policies to respect the privacy not only of Americans but also of everyone else." I can't help reading this as putting an absurd percentage of the moral onus for the repressive policies of non-US governments on the shoulders of NSA. In my opinion, at least, that's more weight than a signals intelligence agency can reasonably be asked to bear.

It is, perhaps, a mark of the strange new policy world we live in with respect to US intelligence collection that I feel compelled to say that protecting free speech in Iran is not NSA's job. But there we are.