We Have Met The Enemy And Now We Do Lunch and Swap Information from the Net

Posted on July 8, 2010

We swap spies and tales and just about everything now with our Communist colleagues from China to Russia.  Why when Dimetry and Barack get together, they looked like they are at their college reunion.  Could they be talking about the next generation of  swapping?  Trading information gleaned from the internet about each others citizens?

Software is out there for governments to control the internet in one way or another and to gather data on companies and individuals. But it is just part of the picture of internet control.

China was going to load filtering software onto all of  computers produced in country until the US stepped in.  It is a software that favors the manufacturer and as such is tantamount to a trade barrier and the US treated it as such.

But the Chinese have recently produced a very interesting white paper.  Columbia professor Tim Wu, co-author of  “Who Owns the Internet,” was interviewed by the  New Yorker’s Evan Osnos about it.  Wu and Jack Goldsmith”predicted correctly that existing laws would be used to control the growth and shape of the Internet, rather than the Internet ushering in a new borderless age.”


In its first white paper about the Internet, the Chinese government has put special emphasis on “Internet sovereignty,” which the Chinese press declares a new concept by which “foreign I.T. companies operating in the country have to abide by Chinese law.” But you’ve been writing about “cyberspace sovereignty” since the mid-nineties. So, what does this sovereignty-with-Chinese-characteristics really mean and does it differ at all from what other countries are doing?


The interesting thing is that the term “Internet sovereignty” originally had a meaning opposite to what the Chinese define it as. In the mid-nineties, some American academics proposed that, since it has its own rules, and its own citizens (of a sort), the Internet ought be considered “sovereign” in a way. If something is sovereign it means it is subject to its own rules, and generally not subject to the rule of other nations—Iceland is sovereign, for example. The Chinese obviously don’t agree with that theory—they don’t think the Internet is like Iceland, a self-governing land, so to speak. In this, the fact is that the Chinese are not alone. Most countries have by now assumed that Internet firms or content-providers must follow their laws, at least when it can be said that it has effects within their borders, or a physical presence of some kind, like a server. So the Chinese theory of “Internet sovereignty,” if poorly named, is a statement of private international law as typically practiced. (This is the subject of a book Jack Goldsmith and I wrote in 2006, “Who Controls the Internet?”). The big difference is the substance of the Chinese rules—which go way beyond the rules of any major country.

The other big difference is that other countries, if they don’t consider the Internet sovereign, have a certain respect for the network as a platform for free speech (sometimes linked to a non-blocking principle, or “net neutrality.”) Again this varies from place to place, but China is unique in its lack of respect for the idea of an open Internet.

Recently legislation was introduced into Congress that would in effect give President Obama a “kill switch” for the internet in times of national emergency (he’s good at creating those on a weekly basis).  This week a new wrinkle emerged:

The federal government is launching an expansive program dubbed “Perfect Citizen” to detect cyber assaults on private companies and government agencies running such critical infrastructure as the electricity grid and nuclear-power plants, according to people familiar with the program.

The surveillance by the National Security Agency, the government’s chief eavesdropping agency, would rely on a set of sensors deployed in computer networks for critical infrastructure that would be triggered by unusual activity suggesting an impending cyber attack, though it wouldn’t persistently monitor the whole system, these people said.


Some industry and government officials familiar with the program see Perfect Citizen as an intrusion by the NSA into domestic affairs, while others say it is an important program to combat an emerging security threat that only the NSA is equipped to provide. [online.wsj.com]

While this kind of eavesdropping has a protective even benign purpose at this writing, the technology is there to be used by unscrupulous people to gather private information.  Things are in place.  It’s pervasive like Facebook. While that company is  now vowing not to keep information about individuals, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you already have an account with Facebook, the horse is already out of the barn.  There currently is no law limiting the time they can retain our information.

The day will soon dawn when governments may swap additional information they need on a private citizen and this will not make the headlines like spy swapping.  And now your medical and other records are in, say Russia for some reason. And you thought Facebook was criminal.