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How the United States' spying strengthens China's hand

An analysis by Joel Simon, featured in Attacks on the Press: Journalism on the front lines in 2013, a worldwide survey by CPJ.

In its typically fulminating style, the English language edition of China's People's Daily proclaimed in an August 2012 editorial that the U.S. must cede control of the Internet. "The Internet has become one of the most important resources in the world in just a few decades, but the governance mechanism for such an important international resource is still dominated by a private sector organization and a single country," the newspaper noted.

China is not alone in this view. A coalition of Internet-restricting nations--including Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and countries throughout Africa and the Middle East--have formed an international coalition calling for the United Nations to take over Internet governance.

The Chinese argument that the Internet structure serves U.S. "hegemonic interests" was long viewed by the international community as "cynical and hypocritical," said Dan Gilmor, an author and expert on Internet issues, given the fact that U.S. policy has supported and promoted freedom of expression online while China has built a massive and sophisticated system of Internet control.

But the ever-growing revelations about the scope of digital spying carried out by the National Security Agency raise doubts about the U.S. commitment. The documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden show that some of the U.S. spying programs operated with technical support of technology companies subject to U.S. jurisdiction. The NSA took advantage of the fact that nearly all online communications passes through U.S.- based servers and switches to vacuum up a huge portion of global communication. It specifically targeted governments, including allies like Brazil, whose president, Dilma Rousseff, has taken grave offense at the invasion of her personal correspondence.

By using its technological advantage and indirect control over the Internet to carry out a global surveillance operation of unprecedented scale, Gilmor told CPJ, "The U.S. has abused its position, handing repressive regimes a lot of ammunition to be clamping down even more."

China has long argued that the United Nations-administered International Telecommunication Union (ITU) should assume the authority for setting technical standards that currently resides with ICANN, a quasi-private entity based in Los Angeles that operates under license from the U.S. Commerce Department. The People's Daily editorial was intended to set the stage for the latest meeting of the ITU, which took place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in December 2012. At that meeting, a coalition of African and Middle Eastern countries introduced a treaty to bring Internet governance under ITU control.

The U.S. and European nations worked feverishly against the proposal, and in the end more than 50 countries, including all eligible members of the EU, refused to sign. But subsequently the U.S./EU coalition has been deeply strained by the Snowden revelations. Europeans, who place a much higher value on privacy, were outraged to learn that their personal data might have been accessed by the NSA. European leaders reacted with fury at the scope of the surveillance, with German officials calling the spying "reminiscent of the Cold War" and the French Foreign Ministry summoning the U.S. ambassador to offer a formal rebuke.

"The credibility of the United States as a global champion for freedom of expression and human rights is undoubtedly damaged by the NSA revelations," Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament and leader on Internet freedom issues, told CPJ.

The decentralized nature of the Internet, which makes censorship or control much harder, is a great strength for journalists and others committed to the free flow of information and ideas. But if you believe, as China does, that national sovereignty trumps the individual right to freedom of expression, then the Internet's current structure not only undermines state authority but also imposes U.S. standards of freedom of expression on the entire world.

This was the argument that played out at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2012 in the aftermath of the "Innocence of Muslims" video. After President Obama called censorship "obsolete" and described freedom of expression as a "universal ideal," then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi pushed back, declaring that Egypt does not respect freedom of expression "that targets a specific religion or a specific culture." His views were echoed by other leaders.

Read the full analysis on CPJ's website.

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