A frequent statement making the rounds among those debating the PRISM disclosures is that most every other country’s intelligence agencies do the same thing. While I don’t doubt that they do, and in some cases expect that their activities are more intrusive, the revelations about the NSA have a different effect.
While the Internet is nominally governed by a handful of multi-stakeholder groups like ICANN, at its base, the core functioning of the Internet is entrusted to the United States. The Internet is hardwired to route traffic through the United States. Moreover, some of the multi-stakeholder agencies derive their authority to govern the Internet through arrangements with the US government. The reason the rest of the world has let such a core piece of the globe’s commerce infrastructure operate this way is the tacit understanding that the United States would not abuse its position at the center of the infrastructure of the Internet. The PRISM disclosures show that it did.
Those justifying the extent of the NSA’s activities exhibit a breathtaking disregard for the trust that has been put in the United States as a benign steward of the Internet. I believe that that trust has been irretrievably broken. This broken trust jeopardizes a free, fair and open Internet by providing those who wish to change the way the Internet is governed with evidence that the United States is imposing its views of what is right and wrong without going through the governance structures it set up itself.
These governance structures have effectively created the Internet we know now. They have ensured an Internet that remains largely free of “national priorities” and idiosyncratic cultural norms. In essence, these structures have been set up to ensure that the Internet simply functions. They set technical standards, ensure interoperability, and keep the Internet from breaking. However, if the U.S. government can impose its own national priorities on the Internet simply because it can, why should other nations be prohibited from doing so?
By exploiting the United States’ position at the heart of the infrastructure of the Internet, the NSA’s activities are fundamentally different from those of other intelligence agencies. Claiming differently exhibits willful blindness to the way the Internet functions and is governed.