Could Snowden End Up Breaking the World Wide Web?

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Close
Open
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

(Updates with comment from ACLU in 11th paragraph.)

Edward Snowden's revelations could make the World Wide Web a much smaller place. Efforts by 15 countries and the European Union to restrict the flow of data internationally could Balkanize chunks of the Internet, stifle innovation and make online communications less secure, according to new research.

Many of these government proposals and existing laws are in response to disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor about U.S. spying, according to the study by the University of California at Davis School of Law and funded in part by a grant from Google.

Among the examples: an attempt in Germany to isolate all communication between Germans on German-built networks; a requirement in Russia for Internet providers to store data locally; and a proposal in Brazil to give the government the authority to store data about Brazilians in the country or face steep fines.

More from CeBIT:

The risk of so-called "data localization," according to co-author Anupam Chander, director of the California International Law Center at the university, is that they create artificial hurdles for international commerce and increase the risk of surveillance by countries consolidating their control over the Internet their citizens see.

"What we're seeing underneath our radar is the rise of efforts to prevent data from leaving shore -- it's the export of data that is now a huge problem," Chander said in an interview. "Much of this predates Snowden but much of the efforts were revived and reinforced post-Snowden. You have these impulses that might exist but you need a trigger - the Snowden revelations serve as a trigger, as a justification."

The ripple effects of Snowden's disclosures continue to widen. Privacy has become the hot topic at recent tech conferences, such as Mobile World Congress, South by Southwest and CeBIT.

Snowden, who is living in Russia and has stated his goal was to expose the NSA's secret surveillance programs and spur changes in U.S. policy, also wants to pressure foreign governments to not engage in mass surveillance, said Jesselyn Radack, an attorney with the Government Accountability Project who has advised Snowden.

"Edward Snowden's testimony has been pretty clear that he's against governments engaging in data-localization and trying to control the Internet," Radack wrote in an e-mail. "Snowden's disclosures reveal tortured efforts to interpret new powers out of vague laws as an intentional method to avoid public opposition and erode the rights of ordinary citizens."

The efforts under way could make the Internet less secure in a subtraction-by-addition kind of way, Chander said. While localization measures can make intuitive sense, they can be of limited use in thwarting eavesdroppers and hackers.

Bloomberg News reported in December that some Canadian firms are now requiring their technical suppliers to store data outside the U.S. to prevent NSA snooping. Such attempts seem to overlook the breadth of the spying, which doesn't stop at the U.S. borders, and the government's ability to force U.S. firms to disclose data regardless of where it's physically located.

Snowden has pushed for wider use of encryption, which is the only way to keep data away from the NSA and other intelligence agencies, said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union. Hosting data in-country won't stop it from being hacked, he said.

"The NSA made their bed and now they can sleep in it," Soghoian said in an interview. "They've been operating in a largely unrestrained way. It's time for them to pay a price for that, and that price will hopefully be companies and governments improving their security."

The biggest losers, Chander said, may be people in countries that adopt the strictest data-localization laws.

"Protectionism breeds a sense of security and the thing that is most useful to ensure the quality of a service is competition - what you want is healthy competition around the world, and if you're insulated from foreign competition, your service suffers," he said. "We'll muddle through, but the costs will be in companies that never come into being, because the local rules make it too difficult to build a top global platform."

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.