November 12, 2013 6:28 pm

Brazil going too far on internet security

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Rousseff’s web protectionism is bad for her country

Throughout the current controversy over US snooping on foreign powers, much of the focus has been on the damage done to relations between America and Europe. The revelation, in particular, that the US tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone has triggered debate in the EU about whether it needs tough new data protection laws.

But the one country that may influence how this controversy develops more than any other is Brazil. President Dilma Rousseff has expressed fury at the revelations of US spying. Consequently, her government has hit back with an extensive set of measures aimed at protecting Brazilians from what it regards as an out-of-control US surveillance machine.

Brazil has published ambitious plans to promote its own networking technology. It intends to set up its own secure national email service. Now it is unveiling legislation that would require all online information concerning Brazilians to be stored physically in Brazil.

This last measure would have big implications. It would require US internet companies operating in Brazil to duplicate infrastructure that they already possess offshore, setting up huge and costly data centres inside the country. This would inevitably leave those internet companies wondering whether they should restrict their operations in Brazil. That would be bad for Brazilian competitiveness and damaging for its tech sector.

It would also be bad for global internet freedom. The world is divided into those states led by the US, which are champions of a free-flowing internet; and those – such as China, Russia and Iran – that maintain national intranets to help secure political control. Brazil is one of a group of countries – alongside Turkey, India and Indonesia – that have wavered over which path to take. If Brazil, whose population is the world’s second-largest user of Facebook, becomes a standard-bearer of internet protectionism, others will follow.

The US has nobody but itself to blame for the angry Brazilian reaction to snooping by American spies. The president of Brazil is right to feel seriously aggrieved by evidence that the US has been tapping into her internal government communications.

But Brazil’s mission to protect its citizens’ personal data by means of extensive data firewalls is flawed. It is bad for Brazil, which would suffer economically. And it is bad for the worldwide web, which risks entering an era of fragmentation and regulation. Ms Rousseff needs to think again.

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