October 28, 2013 6:47 pm

Leaks have weakened American control of the web

Edward Snowden’s actions are transforming global communications policy, says Misha Glenny
A man looks in Moscow on July 12, 2013, at a computer screen displaying a photo US National Security Agency (NSA) fugitive leaker Edward Snowden (C) during his today's meeting with leading Russian rights activists and lawyers at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport where he has been stuck in transit for the last three weeks.©AFP

From the moment they appeared, Edward Snowden’s revelations have been making life awkward for Barack Obama. Before his first summit with Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, the US president stressed he would be raising as a priority the issue of Beijing’s frenetic cyber espionage activities. The day before the meeting, however, the UK’s Guardian newspaper published the first slew of allegations leaked by the former contractor for the US National Security Agency, revealing the breathtaking extent of America’s espionage programme.

As the revelations emerge, each more embarrassing than the last, the US stands to lose much more than just face. Control of the internet is slipping from its hands, too.


On this story

On this topic

IN Opinion

Just months separate the meeting with Mr Xi from a low-key summit in Montevideo, Uruguay. Here, a few days ago, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers kicked out at the land of its birth: the US. The non-profit body joined other obscure groups responsible for the nuts and bolts of the internet in calling for “the globalisation of its functions in which all stakeholders, including governments, participate on an equal footing”.

This means the impact of the Snowden dossier is being felt at the very heart of global communications policy, and it does not look good for the US. The Montevideo communiqué cited “strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance”.

Control over the widgets that run the internet is contentious. Countries outside the US have been demanding changes for some time. Although the internet was largely an American invention, it has become a global technology. Russia and China have led protests that it is untenable for control to reside, physically and politically, with the US.

The Snowden revelations are hastening that process in groups such as Icann. They are also likely to heighten tensions in the International Telecommunications Union, one of the oldest global bodies, founded in 1869. The ITU has until now – including during the two world wars – taken all its decisions by consensus in order to keep lines of communication open. But in December divisions emerged at an ITU summit in Dubai to discuss internet administration. China and Russia sought more control over the internet in their territories. EU countries supported the US position, backing the rights of companies to unfettered access to users wherever they may be. India, Brazil and South Africa, where internet usage is expanding rapidly, were more sympathetic to Beijing and Moscow.

The Snowden leaks turned from debilitating to toxic in September, when Glenn Greenwald, the American journalist who broke the story, published an article in O Globo, Brazil’s biggest daily. This alleged that the US had been monitoring the phone, email and web browser of Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president. There has been no clear denial from Washington.

These revelations, followed by equally embarrassing leaks about Mexico, France and Germany, have opened a whole fresh chapter. It is one thing picking on individuals who may be terrorist suspects – but systematically spying on your allies has transported this story into a new domain. The news that the NSA was also intercepting communications from Petrobras, the state-controlled Brazilian oil company, gives lie to US claims that the security agency is not used for commercial espionage against its friends.

In Britain, former diplomats and spies have been lining up to appear on radio and television to play down the significance of allegations of NSA eavesdropping on German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president François Hollande. Distilled, they argue that everyone knows everyone spies on everyone else, and French and German indignation is chiefly for domestic consumption.

This does not wash. The Brazilians are incandescent about the Snowden dossier. Allied presidents do not cancel state visits to Washington, as Ms Rousseff did, without very good reason. Furthermore, Brazil is seeking to cordon off some of its internet connections to reduce its vulnerability to snooping.

The EU has begun reconsidering its data-sharing deal with the US through Swift, the global payments system. It is also considering preventing American companies gathering customers’ data on behalf of the NSA, except with specific permission from EU authorities.

Not even Mr Snowden could have imagined he would have such a serious impact on global communications policy. But the NSA’s hubris has resulted in an encounter with its nemesis, in the form of a 30-year-old American.

Nobody can predict what the internet will look like in five years’ time – but the end result could be an increasingly fragmented network, where nation states build up their digital frontiers and governments increase their control over what their citizens can and cannot do online.

The writer is author of ‘DarkMarket: How Hackers Became the New Mafia’

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.


Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in