NSA Internet surveillance: where is the outrage?

In my last post I discussed how, with the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, the United States has likely unilaterally killed the Internet as we know it.

It didn’t have to happen. There were a series of events that led to us getting to a point where a democratic government – the self-professed leader of the free world – feels it can carry out activities like this with impunity.

The Internet is a new entity. From a public policy and legislative perspective, we’re just figuring it out. In Canada, we’re struggling with how to deal with cyber-bullying and globally we’re redefining copyright in light of the Internet. In terms of a disruptive technology, the Internet is about as big as it gets. That said, there are some activities for which there is offline precedence, and I think most of us would argue that surveillance is one of those activities.

Governments – even transparent, democratic ones – have always engaged in surveillance activities. They are sometimes an unfortunate necessity to maintain law and order. However, wiretaps have had a high degree of judicial oversight. In Canada, police need to meet a higher standard to obtain a wiretap warrant than a regular warrant. It’s the same for opening a private citizen’s mail, and for a host of other surveillance techniques.

And as a society, we have long recognized the seriousness of these activities.

In fact, outrage at RCMP activities in the 1970s, including unauthorized mail openings and electronic surveillance without warrants, resulted in the Royal Commission into Certain Activities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the MacDonald Commission), and ultimately the creation of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).

It’s not long ago that, in the west at least, we found this type of activity so repugnant that we were willing to go to war over it. Stasi-like surveillance, and what it meant for personal freedom, was at the core of the Cold War. It was, in essence, a conflict fought over the level of state control over an individual’s freedom.

Now, we seem complacent in government monitoring of our activities, even if it is Stasi-like.

The fact is we know that the NSA is copying virtually every message sent from the U.S. to anywhere overseas. Cell phone data, Facebook updates, Google searches, emails – pretty much all communications – are tracked and stored by the U.S. government. And in case you thought you were safe because you’re Canadian, if you use any of these services your data is tracked and stored even if you reside in Canada. Social networking sites like Facebook store users’ data on servers in the U.S., and much of Canada’s Internet traffic transits through the U.S. even if the final destination is elsewhere (this is something CIRA has been actively working to change – see this).

Let me be clear about one thing. It’s not that governments should not have the power to monitor citizens under certain circumstances and with the appropriate oversight – it’s an unfortunate necessity to maintain law and order. But we’re not talking about surveillance with appropriate oversight. We’re talking about an opaque and deliberate system to gather and monitor the activities and communications of potentially everyone who is online.

Why should a government feel it is above judicial oversight to monitor its citizens’ activities, just because they’re online?

Because apparently, we’re fine with it. At the very least, we’re complacent with it.

I could write an entire post about why we should care, but others have already done so, and the reasons are both many and compelling.

Not only should we care, in my opinion we should be outraged.

Is it that we don’t care, or that we don’t understand, or has our moral compass shifted enough in the past two decades that we’re now okay with governments tracking our every move?

I’d like to hear your thoughts – why do we seem so complacent with government surveillance?

In my next post, I’ll discuss the research we carried out with Ipsos Reid to better understand what Canadians think about the PRISM program, and governments monitoring their online activities.

The Internet as we know it is dead.

The Internet as we know it is dead.

Not long ago, I would have argued the opposite to be true.

The free and open Internet was in what I felt to be a strong position just last month. The open democratic nations of the world had just come off the success of defending the multi-stakeholder model at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) coordinated World Conference on International Communications (WCIT-12). And, as I discussed in a previous post, I was cautiously optimistic about the future of ICANN, the organization at the centre of the Internet governance ecosystem.

These were both signs that the Internet – and in particular the Internet governance ecosystem – was reaching a strong and healthy point. Now we are faced with the fact that the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States, has been systematically monitoring the Internet activity of both its own citizens and those of other nations.

The implications of the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program on the Internet governance world can best be explained by revisiting the events at WCIT-12.

WCIT-12 was a landmark meeting in the history of the Internet. A new version of the regulations that govern telecommunications activities globally was proposed and soundly rejected by many of the world’s democratic nations for provisions that would have extended the reach of the ITU over the Internet. This rejection was widely heralded as an endorsement for the current governance model applied to the Internet – the multi-stakeholder model – over a multi-lateral, United Nations model of governance.

I have articulated my reasons for supporting the multi-stakeholder model over a multi-lateral one many times, but my argument boils down to this: no other governance model puts the people and organizations that directly benefit from the Internet’s success in charge of it. The multi-stakeholder model is the only governance model that can support the development of a free and open Internet that has the potential to provide the world with all of the benefits it has to offer. Other models, including the multi-lateral model, are too open-to-influence by issues and actors that exist outside of the Internet ecosystem. Full stop.

WCIT-12 is just one example in a decade-long struggle for control of the Internet between – and, yes, this is an over-simplification but it works – open and transparent democratic nations and more authoritarian nations.

One of the main concerns at WCIT-12 – and voiced by the U.S. – was that new regulations could enable a system where (as I blogged at the time) “countries which do not have a strong commitment to human rights and democracy” would be able to put much of the global Internet traffic under significant surveillance.

Fast forward eight months, and we’re dealing with the news about the PRISM surveillance program. The irony of the fact that the country that led the charge against the new regulations for fear that it would give nations the authority to monitor Internet activity (among other reasons) is, of course, palpable.

Beyond the irony, the implications of the PRISM program run deep. The fact is the United States government has unilaterally invalidated the argument that the Internet must remain free and open for the good of the global community. While the U.S. has been doing its best to ensure nations are unable to monitor Internet activity, it has been working with the private sector in an effort to gather and monitor targeted Internet activity.

At the very least, this is a nail in the coffin of the multi-stakeholder model. They have effectively paved the way for the next attack on the multi-stakeholder model. The result?

Eventually a Balkanized Internet. An Internet that no longer provides access to global markets for business in the developing world. A global Internet that excludes people fighting authoritative regimes for basic human rights. An Internet that is no longer the incredible driver of positive economic and social change.

This is the first blog in a series of three I will be posting on this subject. In my next post, I will be discussing the apparent apathy among the citizens of open and democratic nations (Canada included) with regard to online surveillance.

The Canadian Internet Forum and CIRA’s AGM

On September 16, CIRA will host an important event in Montréal and I hope you can join us. For the first time, we are combining the Canadian Internet Forum (CIF) and CIRA’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). This is also the first time we will hold the CIF outside of Ottawa. By combining these two events, we are able to bring the important discussions the CIF has become known for to a new audience.

We have an exciting line-up, including panels on cyber-security policy in Canada and domestic Internet governance. We have also added a second, business-related stream that includes sessions on getting your business online and web analytics for your online business. Confirmed panellists include leading Canadian legal, security, policy and business experts. You can view the full list here.

In addition, Paul Brigner, the Regional Bureau Director, North America at the Internet Society will deliver an overview of the international Internet governance ecosystem. 

I’m pleased to say that we have confirmed a couple of very good keynote speakers, including:

–  Avinash Kaushik, a “Digital Marketing Evangelist, Google, Co-founder, Market Motive, and Bestselling Author.”

–  Virginia Heffernan, Former New York Times’ columnist, and Author.

More speakers may be announced as we get closer to the event. And, of course we will also be taking care of CIRA-related business at our AGM.

As always, the event is free and open for all to attend. Registration is now open. More details are available here.

I’d also like to remind you that our Board of Directors election process is underway. The Member nomination period wraps up today (August 12) 12 at 6 p.m. ET to nominate either yourself or someone else to serve on our Board. For more information, please visit our elections website. Some changes to our elections rules are highlighted on our elections website – I encourage you to review them.

I hope to see you in Montréal