Despite Americans’ outrage, NSA scandal draws mostly shrugs abroad

June 7, 2013

Revelation that the National Security Agency is mining vast amounts of private data from American telephone and Internet users may be generating outrage and fierce debate here in the U.S. but so far, the story does not appear to have attracted much attention abroad.

When foreign media outlets have paid attention, it's mostly been to report on the possibility that U.S. spy agencies could access the social media accounts of foreigners who use U.S.-based services such as Facebook. Such major American political controversies are typically big news abroad, so the relatively muted reaction this time around is unusual. Perhaps, as some U.S.-watchers suggest, this may say more about Americans' particular sensitivities to perceived government invasions of privacy than about foreign indifference.

With the exception of the U.K. and Canada, where papers have been following the story closely, foreign media has given the NSA story relatively little coverage. Media outlets abroad seem not even to rank the story very high within their international coverage — Russian President Vladimir Putin's announced split with his wife still seems to dominate. And a number of regional stories received more attention. In Africa, the U.K. government apology to Kenyan victims of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising seems to rate higher. Asian outlets are giving more airtime to planned talks between the Koreas and even Chinese President Xi Jinping's upcoming summit with President Obama. Turkey's protests and Syria's ongoing fighting are attracting more attention in Middle Eastern outlets, including the Iranian outlets that are often so keen to needle the U.S.

When foreign outlets do show interest in the story, it's mostly to ask what it means for them. The news that Facebook and Google may be included in the NSA's data collection program, known as PRISM, have set off fears around the world that non-American users might have their data compromised. A story in Le Parisien, a French newspaper, noted that Facebook and Google users in France could theoretically be the focus of NSA snooping. A Dutch outlet noted a similar backlash among tech and privacy groups within the Netherlands.

Globo News, a prominent Brazilian TV news station, was one of the few international outlets to report on the story primarily for the debate it's sparked within the U.S., rather than for how it might affect Brazilian social media users, as other outlets in the country did.

Surprisingly, there's been little opprobrium from foreign state media outlets in countries such as Iran or Russia, which typically take gleeful shots at the U.S. for such privacy abuses, eager to counter U.S. criticism of their own countries. Moscow-run RT did cover the story, of course. But within Iran, some of the most comprehensive coverage came not from state-linked media but from the BBC's Persian service. China's coverage has been tepid, overshadowed by the Xi-Obama summit and local stories, with little of the usual finger-wagging in Chinese state media that seeks to assure its viewers that U.S. freedoms aren't so great after all. But that could change. "Coverage was tentative, which is common for sensitive overseas stories," Adam Minter, a Shanghai-based journalist, said. "I bet we'll see a more robust approved narrative soon."

Maybe so, but Chinese Web users themselves, often glued to U.S. news, don't seem too interested. That might in part be a function of China's much more intrusive surveillance state. but it's worth noting that Web users in open societies, such as India, also seem to be devoting little attention to the story, based on social media searches.

The story does seem to have generated a very different sort of discussion: about Americans and their unusually suspicious view of their government and at times fervent rejection of state intrusion into their lives and private data. "I think America is one of very few countries where this NSA thing would be much of a story. And I mean that as a compliment," Tom Gara, an Australian Wall Street Journal reporter previously based in the Middle East, wrote on Twitter. Hussein Ibish, a Lebanese-American member of the American Task Force on Palestine, responded, "Depends on your expectations. By U.S. standards, it's completely outrageous. Elsewhere, few would care much." Issandr El Amrani, a Moroccan journalist well known for his coverage of the Middle East, put it bluntly: "Amreeka is special about these issues."

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Max Fisher | June 7, 2013