I realize that a fair bit of what I’ve posted regarding everything from drone policy to surveillance has always had an element of defending the US government. In subjects of this sort I’ve often heard salient critiques by people like James Hanley that I am too much of a technocrat, focusing on the details of process rather the underlying principle that lies beneath. This following post (like my privacy post) will try instead to get at my own guiding philosophy on where I think the US needs to go moving forward.
There is much to be said that is wrong with the British Empire. It was a humanitarian and moral disaster. The colonial exploitation of India bled the people white, leading to famines killing millions on a scale comparable with Mao. Repressive control measures included massacres still infamous to this day in locales ranging from Kenya to Burma; while the acts of mass imprisonment and starvation during the Boer War only lacked the clinical industrial capability shown by Cold War totalitarian states.
Yet one aspect remains a positive legacy of Pax Britannica: Freedom of Navigation. Today a cherished international norm, the freedom to navigate the high seas wasn’t always prized, even by the British themselves.
Indeed, during the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 17th century, England was one of the staunchest defenders of the right for a sovereign state to intercept enemy goods even on neutral shipping, then a part of customary international law. It was only after several decades of maritime supremacy in the 18th century that they became backers of the rule of “free ships, free cargo”, enshrining it in the 1856 Paris Declaration (which also abolished the practice of marque and reprisal). As the largest maritime power both in military terms and commercial terms, Great Britain had realized the importance of maintaining the seas as an open venue for trade.
The US today is in an analogous state with the 21st century’s sea of commerce: The World Wide Web. Although its stranglehold on internet traffic routing has declined in the past five years, the US had obtained a lion’s share of the world’s internet traffic. Large numbers of the world’s most popular social media and search platforms are still based from US based companies, and the importance of net traffic on US commercial and economic growth is impossible to overstate.
But like the war time abuses of the Royal Navy in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to ostensibly neutral shipping, American control of the web is increasingly viewed as abusive and exploitative. American advantages in web traffic routing and service provision have been abused by the national security state and states have increasingly moved toward bypassing the US altogether.
This is a moral and strategic failure by the US government. Much like how the overzealous persecution of harmless neutral shipping during the 19th century helped shield atrocious practices like the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the name of “freedom of navigation” by other states, today the US surveillance state’s abuse of online traffic have lent greater legitimacy to oppressive states like China. Whereas five years ago the arguments for “nationalizing” internet traffic infrastructure rested primarily on arguments of repression, today those very same advocates are now working under the veil of freedom and transparency.
Allowing increasing nationalization, militarization, and territorialization of the internet does nothing to help US national interests. The economic advantages held by US software/service providers are negated if governments begin restricted access on the basis of security concerns, while closing access to “controversial” information only strengthens the hands of potential rival states like Russia or China. Online national borders also would increasingly provide havens for legitimate targets of US surveillance to hide. Whatever gains made by the NSA over the past decade would be overshadowed by the vast amounts of data closed off from the US government over the future.
Further the NSA’s abuse of US firms to create software and hardware backdoors puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the global market. Worse, not only does this compromise the security of commercial information systems, it creates a potential weakness that rivals both economic and military can exploit to attack the US in the future. The comparative cost of entry to set up a viable cyber warfare infrastructure is pennies on the dollar compared to challenging for hegemony on the high seas: Leaving vulnerabilities in your infrastructure of this nature is just an invitation to disaster.
The US has nothing to gain and everything to lose by allowing this status quo to continue. The US government must make a point of taking the lead in insisting on freedom of navigation and ownership of private data. Open audits of US national security and surveillance agencies, strict criminal penalties and civil liability for both firms AND government agencies knowingly creating backdoors or vulnerabilities, regulations on data retention and access are but a handful of steps the US must take as quickly as possible to protect its credibility.
At the same time, tech advocates also need to acknowledge that perfect anarchy isn’t going to come back. National interests are far too tied to the web today for anyone to cede all ability to monitor online traffic. In this regard freedom advocates do need to look at the available alternatives and work to empower and limit the most desirable party to retain that capability. The capability itself, however much we wish to make it go away, isn’t going to vanish.
Contrary to the debates we often hear on the subject, the future isn’t going to be a choice between a US led totalitarian surveillance state or a world without surveillance capabilities entirely. Nor is it one where the US has total information control versus one where it is at the mercy of other powers. Rather it’s one where there’s a government that’s been forced to become a standard bearer for international norms of data freedom, or one where we continue to have national interests take the lead. The strength of US global leadership will depend as much on the ability to convince the world it can still be a responsible custodian of data and its infrastructure. More than cruise missiles, chemical weapons redlines, or any other symbol of military power, this will determine whether the 21st century remains an American century, or is ceded to the new breed of repressive regimes.