The most harrowing realization of Edward Snowden's NSA leaks is that the World Wide Web is no longer free. The once seamless network of nations is being walled within distinct geographical borders: overnight, the global backyard has been broken up into sovereign parcels surrounded by picket fences. The web has been the pre-eminent medium of our time because it was limitless and seemingly free. Were we all so naïve? The discovery of automated mass surveillance systems and the public outcry at their ubiquity and omniscience has now reached a point where international transparency is no longer possible. We cannot turn back from the inevitable "Balkanization" of the Internet.
The revelation that Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Apple, Yahoo and other global (but American-based) internet giants were providing backdoor information to the US federal government has given pause to civil libertarians throughout the country. Worse, the bombshells released by the former NSA contractor have sent catastrophic shockwaves through the citizenry and governments of allied nations.
Facebook reports having 1.15 billion users, which means that a large percentage of the developed world's population has willingly forked over their personal information to the American social network. Edward Snowden revealed that Facebook has been, in many ways, an information-gathering service for the NSA. Given the strategic values of aggregate data, not to mention the tactical intelligence value that can be gained from a single user's profile, no foreign country in its right mind will perpetually allow its civil servants or its military to maintain Facebook accounts. No country, no matter how trusting, will give the United States unfettered access to the records of its citizens and leaders.
One can accurately guess that anyone with a computer routinely uses Google's services. The average individual searches so much, that Google often knows more about its users than their families do. The "moats" that protect Google's advertising/search business (including Android, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, and now ChromeCast) are increasingly the means with which the world communicates, makes plans and even lives. As Google simultaneously organizes the world's plethora of data and solemnly pledges to do no evil, they have been caught handing personal and private data to the American government.
The whole world has been rocked by the information leak. The Der Spiegel, a popular German periodical, reported in early July that less than 50% of Germans trust the United States since the Snowden Affair. The uproar in Germany over comprehensive surveillance has already turned violent. The Brazilian President is investigating data storage policies of companies like Google, and they plan on storing all Brazilian data domestically. Even before the grounding of a plane containing the Bolivian President, all in search of Snowden, many of the United States' Latin American allies asserted concern. That concern has only grown more serious since the incident. After the Indian Minister for External Affairs defended the American PRISM program, the public backlash was so great that the Indian government has gone into damage control mode. US Secretary of State, John Kerry has said that he does not believe relations with China would be upset by Snowden's revelations. That is surely not true, but China has protected itself by establishing their own versions of Google, Facebook and Amazon: Baidu, Renren, and Alibaba, respectively.
The very perception, true or false, that Google, Facebook, Yahoo and other tech giants are extensions of American intelligence is perhaps the fatal blow to the jurisdiction-free landscape of the internet. Elected officials in any country cannot afford to look like puppets. Now that the fear of American digital imperialism is globally pervasive, we should expect the imminent and prolific rise of national, protected cloud services and mostly-closed networks.
For an alarming example of what the future looks like, take China, where the Great Firewall keeps free speech out and huddles Chinese authoritarian propaganda within.
Even the United Kingdom, the home of George Orwell, has already begun to create its own distinct version of the Internet via mass censorship - and using Chinese technology. Prime Minister David Cameron is using the pretext of protecting children in order to censor the internet by default. Critics of the plan cite the slippery slope of curtailing free speech.
The UK may very well join "stalwarts of freedom" like Iran, Cuba, Burma, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia (among others) in actively censoring the content of the Internet. Many of these countries prosecute citizens for speaking out against their government in any capacity and jail those who subjectively transmit what is deemed "immoral" material. Such censorships are egregious and repressive violations of human rights that would never be tolerated within the context of the American Internet experience. What is certain, however, is that the glory days of the World Wide Web are now long in the past for all of us. In the post-Snowden era, the open Internet will only be experienced in history books - the ones that aren't censored, anyway.
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