From Wikileaks of 2012 to Snowden's NSA Leaks of 2013: Implications for Global Internet Governance

2012 will always be remembered as the Year of Wikileaks. Similarly, 2013 shall also be remembered as the year that Edward Snowden, a computer security specialist and former CIA employee and National Security Agency contractor, leaked classified information regarding the NSA global surveillance programs.

Whilst Wikileaks was about US diplomatic cables, the Edward Snowden disclosure of classified NSA information to private media organizations such as the UK Guardian newspaper has had graver implications for global Internet privacy. The NSA leak presented the United States of America as a country that practically spies on everybody in a most indiscriminate manner, including its own allies.

It was revealed that the President of Brazil, Ms. Dilma Rouseff had been spied upon by the USA; a dangerous revelation that compelled her to cancel a planned official visit to the United States of America. The German Chancellor, Dr. Angela Merkel also complained that her mobile phone had been hacked into, and the 'usual suspect' had been listening into all her conversations. The German Government was indignant and complained directly to the US Government. The EU also sought clarifications from the United States. Most foreign leaders demanded that US spying must stop after it was revealed by the Guardian that 35 world leaders had been spied upon after their telephone communications were tapped.

Brazil had to take the matter to the United Nations General Assembly and collaborated with Germany in October to draft a resolution on the US spying allegations that would guarantee the privacy of electronic communications. The consensus resolution on "the right to privacy in the digital age," was adopted on 19th December 2013. It calls on UN Member States to "review their procedures, practices and legislation on the surveillance of communications, their interception and collection of personal data, including mass surveillance, with a view to upholding the right to privacy by ensuring the full and effective implementation of all relevant obligations under international human rights law." This seems to be the only coordinated reaction by the international community to the US global spying and surveillance activities.

But the revelation that the US Federal Government has expanded its global electronic surveillance program and has been collecting diverse types of information including email, chat, video-conferencing, file transfers, etc. supplied by Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL, YouTube, etc. These companies are often forced to comply since it is lawful under US laws for them to cooperate with National Intelligence Agencies. The US-based Internet and Telecoms companies (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc.) ordinarily cannot refuse to provide data upon the request of US national security agencies against the backdrop that increased surveillance activities by US National Security operatives are justified by heightened global counter-terrorism efforts that are aimed at discovering and disrupting terrorist threats.

Thus, anything that is happening on the Internet, especially on the Social Media space is no longer private. These recent revelations have clearly shown that Internet user privacy has been significantly undermined and public confidence and trust on the Internet as a communications platform has been considerably eroded.

It is expected that these issues would remain topical throughout 2014 and beyond, as the future of Global Internet Governance is debated. The voices of those calling for a paradigm shift in the architecture of Global Internet Governance towards one that deemphasizes the centrality of US-based institutions will no doubt become more strident. The NSA leaks and the allegations of widespread international spying activities by the United States of America, including access to millions of data records obtained from Internet and telephone companies, have seriously undercut US moral authority as the custodian of Internet privacy, civil liberties and human rights. The countries that have been clamoring for a new internet Governance model that is led by the UN would try to buttress their case by citing US global Internet surveillance program and global spying activities.

The independent panel that was setup by the US Administration to review the surveillance programs recommended that some restrictions should be placed on NSA spying activities. During 2014, the global community will be closely monitoring the commencement of implementation of policy reforms regarding the US surveillance programs by the NSA.

By Sophia Bekele, CEO of DotConnectAfrica. Ms. Bekele is a former ICANN generic Names Supporting Organization (gNSO) Council policy advisor & contributed to policy over the new gTLD programme & IDNs. She was also policy advisor to various UN Agencies on ICTs. Founder and spearhead of the Yes2DotAfrica campaign. Bekele is a business and corporate executive, an international entrepreneur, a thought leader in Corporate and ICT Governance, international policy, Business Strategy, Internet, ICT & development. Her Profiles on / wikipedia.