Who’s The True Enemy of Internet Freedom – China, Russia, or the US?
TECHNOLOGY, 5 Jan 2015
Beijing and Moscow are rightly chastised for restricting their citizens’ online access – but it’s the US that is now even more aggressive in asserting its digital sovereignty.
Recent reports that China has imposed further restrictions on Gmail, Google’s flagship email service, should not really come as much of a surprise. While Chinese users have been unable to access Gmail’s site for several years now, they were still able to use much of its functionality, thanks to third-party services such as Outlook or Apple Mail.
This loophole has now been closed (albeit temporarily – some of the new restrictions seem to have been mysteriously lifted already), which means determined Chinese users have had to turn to more advanced circumvention tools. Those unable or unwilling to perform any such acrobatics can simply switch to a service run by a domestic Chinese company – which is precisely what the Chinese government wants them to do.
Such short-term and long-term disruptions of Gmail connections are part of China’s long-running efforts to protect its technological sovereignty by reducing its citizens’ reliance on American-run communication services. After North Korea saw its internet access blacked out temporarily in the Interview brouhaha – with little evidence that the country actually had anything to do with the massive hacking of Sony – the concept of technological sovereignty is poised to emerge as one of the most important and contentious doctrines of 2015.
And it’s not just the Chinese: the Russian government is pursuing a similar agenda. A new law that came into effect last summer obliges all internet companies to store Russian citizens’ data on servers inside the country. This has already prompted Google to close down its engineering operations in Moscow. The Kremlin’s recent success in getting Facebook to block a page calling for protests in solidarity with the charged activist Alexey Navalny indicates that the government is rapidly re-establishing control over its citizens’ digital activities.
But it’s hardly a global defeat for Google: the company is still expanding elsewhere, building communications infrastructure that extends far beyond simple email services. Thus, as South American countries began exploring plans to counter NSA surveillance with a fibre optic network of their own that would reduce their reliance on the US, Google opened its coffers to fund a $60m undersea cable connecting Brazil to Florida.
The aim was to ensure that Google’s own services run better for users in Brazil, but it is a potent reminder that extricating oneself from the grasp of America’s tech empire requires a multidimensional strategy attuned to the fact that Google today is not a mere search and email company – it also runs devices, operating systems, and even connectivity itself.
Given that Russia and China are not known for their commitment to freedoms of expression and assembly, it is tempting to view their quest for information sovereignty as yet another stab at censorship and control. In fact, even when the far more benign government of Brazil toyed with the idea of forcing American companies to store user data locally – an idea it eventually abandoned – it was widely accused of draconian overreach.
However, Russia, China and Brazil are simply responding to the extremely aggressive tactics adopted by none other than the US. In typical fashion, though, America is completely oblivious to its own actions, believing that there is such a thing as a neutral, cosmopolitan internet and that any efforts to move away from it would result in its “Balkanisation”. But for many countries, this is not Balkanisation at all, merely de-Americanisation.
US companies have been playing an ambiguous role in this project. On the one hand, they build efficient and highly functional infrastructure that locks in other countries, creating long-term dependencies that are very messy and costly to undo. They are the true vehicles for whatever is left of America’s global modernisation agenda. On the other hand, the companies cannot be seen as mere proxies for the American empire. Especially after the Edward Snowden revelations clearly demonstrated the cosy alliances between America’s business and state interests, these companies need to constantly assert their independence – occasionally by taking their own government to court – even if, in reality, most of their interests perfectly align with those of Washington.
This explains why Silicon Valley has been so vocal in demanding that the Obama administration do something about internet privacy and surveillance: if internet companies were seen as compromised parties here, their business would collapse. Just look at the misfortunes of Verizon in 2014: uncertain of the extent of data-sharing between Verizon and the NSA, the German government ditched its contract with the US company in favour of Deutsche Telekom. A German government spokesman said at the time: “The federal government wants to win back more technological sovereignty, and therefore prefers to work with German companies.”
However, to grasp the full extent of America’s hypocrisy on the issue of information sovereignty, one needs to look no further than the ongoing squabble between Microsoft and the US government. It concerns some email content – relevant to an investigation – stored on Microsoft’s servers in Ireland. American prosecutors insist that they can obtain such content from Microsoft simply by serving it a warrant – as if it makes no difference that the email is stored in a foreign country.
In order to obtain it, Washington would normally need to go through a complex legal process involving bilateral treaties between the governments involved. But now it wants to sidestep that completely and treat the handling of such data as a purely local issue with no international implications. The data resides in cyberspace – and cyberspace knows no borders!
The government’s reasoning here is that the storage issue is irrelevant; what is relevant is where the content is accessed – and it can be accessed by Microsoft’s employees in the US. Microsoft and other tech giants are now fighting the US government in courts, with little success so far, while the Irish government and a handful of European politicians are backing Microsoft.
In short, the US government insists that it should have access to data regardless of where it is stored as long as it is handled by US companies. Just imagine the outcry if the Chinese government were to demand access to any data that passes through devices manufactured by Chinese companies – Xiaomi, say, or Lenovo – regardless of whether their users are in London or New York or Tokyo. Note the crucial difference: Russia and China want to be able to access data generated by their citizens on their own soil, whereas the US wants to access data generated by anybody anywhere as long as American companies handle it.
In opposing the efforts of other countries to reclaim a modicum of technological sovereignty, Washington is likely to run into a problem it has already encountered while promoting its nebulous “internet freedom” agenda: its actions speak louder than its words. Rhetorically, it is very hard to oppose government-run digital surveillance and online spin in Russia, China or Iran, when the US government probably does more of it than all of these countries combined.
Whatever motivates the desire of Russia and China to exert more control over their digital properties – and only the naive would believe that they are not motivated by concerns over domestic unrest – their actions are proportional to the aggressive efforts of Washington to exploit the fact that so much of the world’s communications infrastructure is run by Silicon Valley. One’s man internet freedom is another man’s internet imperialism.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. He is a contributing editor to Foreign Policy and runs the magazine’s Net Effect blog. He is a visiting scholar at Stanford University and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation.
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