Brazil's radical move against the NSA

Commentary: The country's plan to wall off its Internet, though understandable, threatens to balkanize the Web

A Brazilian Indian on his laptop during the People's Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 2012.
Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images

Brazil has initiated a bold plan to protect its citizens from U.S. National Security Agency surveillance by storing all Brazilian data locally and taking other steps to wall off the country's Internet from foreign interference. Although I doubt the proposal is feasible in itself, I endorse its message demanding changes in U.S. policy on mass spying.

The idea of fragmenting or partitioning the Internet might seem like the only solution guaranteed to protect citizens in different countries or continents from the totalitarian power of the NSA to record their every move. Brazil is the first country to introduce such a plan, but there have been discussions about similar moves within the European Union.

Natives of digital culture get chills when they hear about plans to build virtual walls around countries. The Internet's signature is that it transcends borders. Just as concrete barriers and border fences have been the objects of scorn in the offline world, the creation of these same sorts of limitations online would be a major setback to human progress. Demands for social change are sweeping around the globe and solutions to corrupt systems are surfacing because the world's people can easily share with each other their experience and know-how. If countries sequester their citizens from the World Wide Web, the Internet as we have enjoyed it will be over.

Brazil's plan not only threatens the Internet as a whole but also increases its citizens' vulnerability to internal dangers. For instance, it makes its population dependent on its own Internet, which would become dangerous if a military dictatorship, for example, returned to power and sought to control online expression.

Despite these concerns, there is no question that a radical step like Brazil's sends a necessary message in response to NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden's revelations about the unchecked power of America's spy agencies.

Congress has a duty to constrain the NSA, for it is acting far beyond even what the authors of the draconian USA Patriot Act envisioned. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the author of the act, which expanded the government's spying powers after the Sept. 11 attacks, claims that the NSA is breaking the law. If Congress does not act, it threatens not only the U.S. with isolation but also American tech companies with loss of critical business. Leaders of the European Union have expressed outrage at the NSA revelations.  

We need new global legal standards that honor the privacy of our digital data as a human right.

U.S. legislators have authored bills to protect the privacy of their constituents, but they have totally failed to reassure the rest of the world that they are willing to stop the illegal mass surveillance of citizens from other countries. In fact, I had my own experience with the United States probing my personal data, due to my involvement with WikiLeaks, the government-transparency organization that published secret U.S. documents as well as a secret video showing a U.S. military operation in Iraq that mistakenly targeted civilians. The Department of Justice demanded that Twitter secretly hand over my private messages and metadata showing where I was, with whom and for how long. Twitter took the secret order to court and managed to unseal it so that I could challenge it. I lost the case, despite my serving as a member of Iceland's parliament and despite there being no criminal case pending against me. The loss confirmed that I and anyone else who uses social media surrender our privacy rights to the whims of social media companies and their governments.

I sympathize with Brazil's attempts to find a solution to protect its citizens, but I worry it may quarantine the country from others -- a cure that may be worse than the disease it is meant to correct. There are alternatives: Strong encryption is a key element in protecting privacy rights, and to that end there are emerging options for email encryption. Mailpile, one of these developing webmail alternatives, aims to keep email local instead of relying on a cloud email provider like Gmail. There are also emerging alternatives to the Google search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, and to Facebook, such as EvolveSociety -- neither of which tracks users.

Such piecemeal actions by individual countries and Internet startups, however, are not enough. We also need new global legal standards that honor the privacy of our digital data as a human right, and that protect whistle-blowers like Snowden who courageously step forward with important information about intrusions of privacy that are sanctioned by one country's government. No one in the world is assured of his or her privacy anymore, thanks to American data mining: Doctors can no longer guarantee the privacy of their patients' records, lawyers can no longer promise clients confidentiality, and journalists can no longer shield their sources. It is ironic that the United States -- the country that preaches standards of democracy to other countries -- is now responsible for violating a basic democratic foundation enshrined in the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment: protecting citizens from unreasonable government intrusion.

Even the best laws a country might set in place to protect the privacy rights of its citizens cannot guarantee those rights against foreign intervention. Thus, Brazil's action may encourage other countries to take even more radical steps to protect their citizens' and companies' privacy. This is why it is imperative for the U.S. to immediately show the rest of the world its intention to change its policies. Without swift action, other nations, as well as individuals and corporations, will follow Brazil's lead and isolate themselves virtually. Nations will build more virtual walls, corporations will refuse to do business in the U.S., and individuals will avoid the services of the biggest American tech companies. Since everything we do and all the services we use are now being broken down into data, setting global standards for data protection has become as urgent a need now as establishing the Enlightenment's basic human rights was in the late 18th century.

The good news from Brazil's announced plan, especially if other countries threaten to follow suit, is that it might pressure U.S. legislators to craft new laws that will restrict the NSA's activities and assure Americans and the world that those activities will conform to constitutional and international standards. Far better for the United States to take action than to force the world to balkanize the Internet into virtual fiefdoms.

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