The hot topic of the opening day at this year's Internet Governance Forum in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 12 was all about the United States' control of core Internet systems. Although much of the day was concerned with the rules around domain naming services, countries like China, Russia, Brazil and Iran are still a little uncomfortable with the idea of Americans controlling these systems, and with good reason.
In Aug., the U.S. passed the Protect America Act, which sanctioned warrantless spying on any communications coming in and out of the country. For any other country, something like this might be rather benign, but because it is often cheaper to route phone calls and other communications (such as Internet data) through the States rather than directly to a neighbouring country, the U.S. is in a prime position to spy on the rest of the world's private conversations.
The idea was to make amendments to the outdated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 that would restore its usefulness after changes in technology unintentionally forced the government to go through the courts in order to conduct foreign surveillance in some cases.
However, the Act was passed merely as a temporary solution to the problem. Last month, the RESTORE Act (Responsible Electronic Surveillance That is Overseen Reviewed and Effective) was passed as a more permanent replacement. The new Act allows for the U.S. government to set up permanent listening posts on U.S. soil to monitor what's coming over the wires and through the tubes of telephones and the Internet, so long as there's a reasonable belief that the calls are originating from outside of the United States.
Privacy is already on its way out south of the border, and this is no more evident than with claims by U.S. director of national intelligence Donald Kerr that Americans should be comfortable with their government spying on its citizens last month at an intelligence conference in San Antonio. Kerr found it odd that people objected to the U.S. government listening in when they were perfectly willing to give their credit card information to "a green-card holder" who "may or may not have been an illegal entrant to the United States." How very offensive.
Though the U.S. government has been tapping phone lines for quite some time, these new laws lay the foundation for the perpetuation of implicitly temporary measures such as the Patriot Act.
The reason to have a problem with this is that the Protect America Act implies that only Americans have the rights afforded by the U.S. constitution. This is interesting, because it is contrary to claims the U.S. government has made about bringing freedom in Iraq. If it is indeed true that only Americans should have the rights granted by the constitution, then why are the Americans bringing "freedom" to Iraqi people?
These two new Acts require cooperation from social networking web sites like Facebook or MySpace as necessary. Indeed since the breakout of the second gulf war, Americans have seen reduced levels of privacy with the rampant expansion of spy law, and this is now more than ever affecting non-Americans who have their communication lines routed through the U.S.
Americans have a long tradition of holding themselves to a higher standard than the rest of the world. In constant competition with everyone around them, Americans often try to one-up their neighbours. If Russia must have 10,000 nuclear devices, the U.S. must have 20,000. If the Russians must launch the first synthetic satellite and man in orbit, then Americans must be the first to land on the moon, and if the U.S. can't do it, no one can.
It's not as though this happens without people putting up a fight, however. Satirists often criticize U.S. government policies, pointing out that acts like the Patriot Act are unconstitutional because they are in violation of fundamental rights to privacy. But if these rights aren't extended to non-Americans, why should any rights be extended beyond their borders at all?
Perhaps one day Americans will be able take solace in knowing that although their civil liberties are being abused by their government, the civil liberties of non-Americans are being abused just a little bit more. That's just one more way they'll be able to one-up their neighbours.