NSA spying will not change Internet governance

The NSA's surveillance of civilians and leaders abroad, now known to include Spain, is guaranteed to generate outrage in those countries. But it won't make any meaningful changes in Internet governance.

More NSA surveillance news is out: First, Japanese authorities refused to assist the NSA in Internet surveillance. Second, as put by Glenn Greenwald, the co-author of an article in Spain's El Mundo, "NSA collected data on 60 million calls in Spain in one month".


I'd like to say I'm as mad as everyone about the massive surveillance programs disclosed by Edward Snowden, but I'm not. I am very upset about some specific practices, but not others. So much of the outrage is over government actions which any reasonable person would presume were happening anyway.

In that sense, at least from the point of view of an American, the slowly-released stories of NSA surveillance abroad are getting quite boring. Point made: The NSA spies on friend and foe alike, and foreigners not in the US have no privacy rights under US law.

There have been calls, such as those of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, for changes in Internet governance. As The Guardian put it:

Rousseff called on the UN oversee a new global legal system to govern the internet. She said such multilateral mechanisms should guarantee the "freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights" and the "neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

John Levine, a true expert in the technology and governance of the Internet and no NSA apologist, rightly calls this "a crock."If the US has extraordinary access to the networks in other countries like Brazil, it's because of bad telecom policies in those countries. In Brazil specifically, laws which protect domestic monopolies make it cheaper for Brazilian networks to pair with each other through US networks. Seriously. Obviously this makes it easy for US authorities to spy on Brazilian networks. What do they expect?

Rousseff's raising of net neutrality arguments makes the speech even more bizarre. Such arguments have no merit even when they are in context. No doubt extremists of all types would like to restrict Internet speech for the reasons she lists, but it's not an actual problem, at least not in the US; perhaps Brazil has such restrictions.

ICANN also thinks it will be at the center of Snowden-inspired changes. I find this amusing. ICANN policy has, at least as often as not, weakened the security of the Internet through added complexity and naïve governance.

In fact, as Levine reminds us, the Internet is a collection of networks with voluntary agreements to connect to each other and route traffic. The only possible leverage countries like Brazil have with the US on this matter would be to disconnect their networks from us and connect through other countries. Doing this will certainly cost them enough money to trump their principles and they'll just get spied on by the countries with whom they connect instead of the US.

Long before the Snowden revelations, every time there was another story about the Chinese spying on our Internet, I would write that it just stands to reason we're doing the same thing; or at least I hoped we were. No rules promulgated by some UN or other bureaucracy have the slightest chance of stopping nation states from conducting espionage on each other. As individuals and organizations, all we can do is to use defensive security technologies, such as encryption, to protect ourselves. At the very least, you can make it much harder.