Will the Snowden affair lead to the Internet’s breakup?

President Obama might as well have had on his Nobel laureate coat and tails back in August. That’s when he weighed in on the revelations from fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden that had ignited a worldwide furor over the vast reach of previously undisclosed U.S. electronic snooping.

The moment was reminiscent of Obama’s 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. That too invited him to muster a wisdom and statesmanship he seemed to possess but had never demonstrated.

Opinions differ as to how much peace Obama has made since then, but his Snowden comments Aug. 9 were auspicious. Acknowledging public outrage, he said he was stepping up oversight of the National Security Agency, and noted it was Snowden’s “repeated leaks of classified information” that “initiated the debate,” albeit “in a passionate but not always fully informed way.”

Obama added that “there’s no doubt that Mr. Snowden’s leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case…”

Unfortunately, that pretty much ended Obama’s statesmanship when it came to the conversation he credits Snowden with starting. Since then, Obama has been focused on trying to jail the guy who started it.

The Justice Department has charged Snowden with espionage, and he has taken refuge in that haven of expressive freedom and governmental restraint, Russia. This fact is itself no small embarrassment to those of us who thought this was the place you came to escape governmental wrath and overreach.

Abroad, Snowden has emerged as a hero in some quarters—ironically, an as archetypal American hero, the lone individualist who follows his conscience and defies officialdom in dogged pursuit of a larger good. Opinion leaders in Germany—where people are miffed that the NSA tapped the cell phone of their current chancellor, Angela Merkel, for more than a decade—have demanded he be given asylum there.

Over here, the possibility that Snowden might be anything but a traitor is barely breathed. The question of clemency was raised, briefly, the other day during the Sunday talk shows, and was swatted away instantly by the two congressional leaders on hand, backed up soon after by a White House spokesman.

The U.S. media, for their part, remain hunkered in the crouch they’ve assumed since the flood of Internet-era leaks began in 2010—a posture neck-deep in hypocrisy, with editorialists declaiming the great public value of the leaks, while keeping silent when their government imprisons the leakers.

Meanwhile, the riveting stories derived from Snowden’s NSA files continue to flow.  The realities he has exposed are immense, incomparably more significant, in my view, than the Wikileaks disclosures, for which Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning has been sentenced to 35 years and Wikileaks’ founder, Julian Assange, remains besieged in the Ecuadorean embassy in London.

Unlike the Wikileaks files, the Snowden material does not, by and large, consist of sensitive information the spymasters have scraped up, but instead illuminates a much more serious matter—their breathtaking capacity to scrape. That capacity, it seems, is unimaginably broad and deep, and encompasses practically all public communication systems—from phones to emails—to corporate intranets, to social media, the world’s mightiest search engines, “the cloud,” most anything digital.

The picture that emerges is of a stupendously vast surveillance system, and in the weeks and months to come, I think we’ll hear more about the most momentous potential consequence of all this: That US. spymasters have been so successful that their capability has been woven into the infrastructure of the Internet itself.

That’s the big one. And that’s the fear that is already driving Germany, India, Russia, China and the European Union to push for the United Nations to take a greater role in Internet governance, and of greater concern, is encouraging countries such as Brazil and Germany to take steps toward regionalized Internets and developing secure national email services.

Continue reading “Will the Snowden affair lead to the Internet’s breakup?”

The myth of the free, unregulated Internet

Who regulates the Internet? If you answered “nobody”—because the government keeps its hands off—read on.

Earlier this month, The New York Times exposed a squalid online mini-industry that makes its money from posting photos taken of people who’ve just been arrested—not drunken celebrities at the rag end of a frolic, but ordinary people.

This is one media sector with an inexhaustible supply of fresh content to publish. Booking photos are public documents, and a lot of people get arrested every day.

But how does anyone make money from this? Do people pay to gawk at the mug shots? No, the sites—and The Times says more than 80 have sprung up over the past three years—charge the people who were photographed anywhere from $30 to $400 in exchange for not publishing the pictures.

This certainly seems like a despicable little shakedown. Worse, people who get arrested often are never convicted of a crime, and may not have done anything wrong. Moreover, once the photos are posted they’re likely to linger elsewhere on the Internet even after the originating sites remove them. For the unlucky arrestee, what might have been a fleeting embarrassment continues to hover and ache, like a bad hangover.

It’s not right. Several states have had a go at legislation compelling sites to take down the pictures of anyone who’s exonerated, or barring the cops from releasing mug shots to profit-seeking entities.

Press advocates, understandably, object to restrictions on access to public records. I’d say people have a right to control use of their images for purely money-making purposes even if the images are obtained from a public data base.

But admittedly, laws limiting access to mug shots or curtailing what can be done with them may be unconstitutional.

While the law dithers, however, the real regulators of the Internet can act.

Enter the privatized world of Internet regulation. It appears that after being approached by Times reporter David Segal, the paymasters who handle the cash that lubricates the online economy suffered spasms of conscience.

Shocked, they said, by what they now knew about their clients, MasterCard decided the mug shot sites were “repugnant,” and American Express, PayPal and Discovery announced they wouldn’t handle the money anymore. Visa asked the banks it uses to look into the legality of the sites. Big trouble looms.

Now, I wouldn’t weep if the mug shot sites went dark. But among the commentators on this affair, Kevin Drum of Mother Jones was one of few who asked the most significant question: “Should credit card companies get to decide who does business on the web?”

This sort of thing has happened before. In December 2010 those same financial companies—along with Western Union, Amazon and Bank of America—went after Wikileaks and suddenly refused to process donations to the anti-secrecy  Continue reading “The myth of the free, unregulated Internet”