Obama wanted an open Internet he could spy on. Thanks to the NSA, he may get neither.

September 17, 2013

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff (Eraldo Peres/Associated Press)

Most of the international outcry so far surrounding the NSA's online surveillance program has come from Europe, where privacy-conscious governments have protested the White House's spying. But many of those countries are also close U.S. allies, and their intelligence relationship with the United States is not nearly as black-and-white as it seems.

Not so with Brazil, which has taken extraordinary steps to challenge the Obama administration over the NSA leaks. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil's president, has canceled a state visit to Washington because of the surveillance issue, White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed Tuesday.

The snub is in perfect character with Brazil's broader reaction to the NSA leaks. The country's legislature is considering a bill that would store Brazilian citizens' Web data on domestic servers rather than on U.S. ones in a bid to keep the information out of the NSA's reach.

Brazil also plans to lay new undersea fiberoptic cable directly to Europe and build a South American version of the Internet, thereby circumventing the U.S.-controlled portions of the Internet, according to the Associated Press.

This may sound ominously familiar to another project: Iran's attempt to build a "halal" Internet that's segregated from the Western version.

While Brazil isn't likely to crack down on free speech online anytime soon, attempts to cut the cord with America's Internet infrastructure and the surveillance that it implies raises the prospect of a fragmented Web that's no longer as cohesive as the one that exists today. Rousseff may be setting a dangerous precedent, the IT security researcher Bruce Schneier told the AP, encouraging "some of the worst countries out there to seek more control over their citizens' Internet. That's Russia, China, Iran and Syria."

But perhaps Rousseff isn't at fault. Her administration is simply responding to signals outside her control. The United States, meanwhile, is in the uncomfortable position of having to defend a contradictory position on Internet governance. Spying on Americans' and allies' online activity may not be antithetical to the White House's diplomatic goal — promoting Internet freedom overseas — but the military mission is orthogonal to it.

If the Internet does start falling to pieces, it'll be an ironic consequence for the country that did so much to build it up.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Timothy B. Lee · September 17, 2013