There was a piece in the Guardian over the weekend by John Naughton that has really generated some buzz, and rightly so. He’s pushing the media to cover the Snowden leaks for what they say about the internet, rather than “OMG WHERE IS SNOWDEN NOW?” or “OMG GLENN GREENWALD IS A TRAITOR,” which since it focuses on substance rather than flash is probably not going to happen. Still, his conclusion is incredibly important:
As an antidote, here are some of the things we should be thinking about as a result of what we have learned so far.
The first is that the days of the internet as a truly global network are numbered. It was always a possibility that the system would eventually be Balkanised, ie divided into a number of geographical or jurisdiction-determined subnets as societies such as China, Russia, Iran and other Islamic states decided that they needed to control how their citizens communicated. Now, Balkanisation is a certainty.
Second, the issue of internet governance is about to become very contentious. Given what we now know about how the US and its satraps have been abusing their privileged position in the global infrastructure, the idea that the western powers can be allowed to continue to control it has become untenable.
Third, as Evgeny Morozov has pointed out, the Obama administration’s “internet freedom agenda” has been exposed as patronising cant. “Today,” he writes, “the rhetoric of the ‘internet freedom agenda’ looks as trustworthy as George Bush’s ‘freedom agenda’ after Abu Ghraib.”
That’s all at nation-state level. But the Snowden revelations also have implications for you and me.
They tell us, for example, that no US-based internet company can be trusted to protect our privacy or data. The fact is that Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft are all integral components of the US cyber-surveillance system. Nothing, but nothing, that is stored in their “cloud” services can be guaranteed to be safe from surveillance or from illicit downloading by employees of the consultancies employed by the NSA. That means that if you’re thinking of outsourcing your troublesome IT operations to, say, Google or Microsoft, then think again.
With today’s revelation by Snowden/Greenwald about an NSA program called XKeyscore that supposedly “allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals,” Prof. Naughton’s piece looks even more significant.
James Fallows goes further and places the massive data dragnet among the many extreme overreactions that this country has had to 9/11:
The real threat from terrorism has never been the damage it does directly, even through attacks as horrific as those on 9/11. The more serious threat comes from the over-reaction, the collective insanity or the simple loss of perspective, that an attack evokes. Our government’s ambition to do everything possible to keep us “safe” has put us at jeopardy in other ways.
One more note: it is also worth emphasizing that this damage was not done by Edward Snowden, except in an incidental and instrumental sense. The damage comes from the policies themselves, just as the lasting damage from Abu Ghraib came not from the leaked photos but from the abuse they portrayed.
But the irrational decision to invade Iraq dispelled any notion I had that this was merely a performance and that a more thoughtful, considered analysis of how to respond was taking place in the corridors of power. All the literature on the decision process since then has born that out. Some, like Cheney and Wolfowitz, were always crazy and saw their opportunity to advance their crazy cause. Others were just afraid either of the terrorists or being blamed if another terrorist attack took place. The result was that our government lost its collective mind. And it took on an ethos within its national security apparatus that institutionalized that insanity.
I’ll go one better and argue that this surveillance network is not only the sign of a government that panicked after 9/11, but of a superpower that knows, even if only subconsciously, that it’s in decline. Digby’s post is titled “When a superpower loses it,” and by “it” she means “its mind,” but I think “it” should just as easily refer to “its power” in this case. Look at what’s going on around us apart from the surveillance state:
- The same balloon-brained “thinkers” who made the case for the Iraq War are encouraging the US to involve itself in the Syrian civil war in order to “send a message to Iran,” a country so far below our weight class it would be like one of the Klitschko brothers “sending a message” to Manny Pacquiao (look it up). If anything is damaging to “American credibility,” it’s the idea that we need to be mucking around in proxy wars with countries like Iran.
- A major American city has declared bankruptcy, or rather is trying to, but is being challenged in court (luckily it still has a half-billion to spend on a hockey arena!).
- High poverty: Compared to other OECD nations, America has higher levels of poverty and a much weaker social safety net. The US ranks 34th of 35 countries in child poverty according to UNICEF. America’s median wealth as a percentage of total national wealth, a figure that demonstrates the health of the middle class, is at third-world levels.
- Very high level of income inequality: only Mexico and Chile have higher (more unequal) Gini coefficient scores than the United States among developed nations.
- Lousy health: A recent study called “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health” determined that health outcomes in the US (life expectancy, survival rates, rate of illness) rank at the bottom of the list of so-called “high income countries.” This is partly, though not entirely, the fault of a health care system that excludes too many and produces worse outcomes at higher costs than the systems in other developed nations. “Obamacare” will hopefully improve things, but by how much?
- Underfunded national infrastructure: McKinsey reports that the gap between our historical (1992-2011) infrastructure spending and what will be needed between now and 2030 amounts to a full percentage point of GDP annually. No surprise, of the eight countries McKinsey looked at on this metric, the US ranked dead last.
- Poor education: As in health care, the Council on Foreign Relations finds that Americans spend a lot on education for results that are comparatively poor and getting worse. One major issue is the inequality of the distribution of all that money (fourth-most in the world at the primary and secondary levels and most in the world in post-secondary) we’re spending.
- Related to the above is the student loan crisis: Americans are carrying ever-higher levels of student debt, dooming an entire generation to lifetimes of crushing debt (this is particularly acute in a period of high unemployment, when many students are unable to find work at all, or to find work that allows them to pay back these massive loans).
- Hunger: among “advanced countries,” Pew finds that the US (with the highest per-capita GDP) has a disturbingly high percentage of its population who are food insecure (defined here as “cannot afford food in the past year”).
- Our incarceration rate, which is the highest in the world, and not only indicates a society in crisis but also masks our true rates of hunger and income disparity by cramming so many of our economically disadvantaged (who are far more likely to wind up in prison than the well-to-do) into the prison system.
- Trade imbalance: the US is now a net exporter of oil and seems committed to exporting natural gas reserves being recovered via fracking. Other net oil exporters include such healthy, free societies as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, the UAE, Nigeria, Kuwait, Algeria, and Kazakhstan. We should not be striving to become a petro-state.
- The federal government, instead of doing anything to try to fix the above, is less productive than ever before.
- Confidence in public institutions has cratered.
- Our inexorable slide from democracy into oligarchy, which explains just about everything on this list.
But, hey, I think Edward Snowden just checked into a hostel in Helsinki, or maybe one of the Kardashian sisters just went out for lunch in Venice Beach, so bqhatevwr. SQUIRREL! The press is ON IT!