When Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff postponed her official visit to the US in protest of National Security Agency spying activities on Tuesday, it seemed like a routine bit of diplomatic posturing.
But another one of her proposals could perhaps be more significant: a set of measures intended to extricate the internet in Brazil from under the influence of the US and its tech giants.
Some are claiming the country is embarking on a course that will cut itself off from the internet. To international policy experts however, Rousseff’s proposals offer a more open and comprehensive discussion of issues that have been quietly brewing in the internet community.
“The hope that Brazil has is that the measures would curb the control the US has in terms of infrastructure and that maybe it will be a pressure for the United States to change its practices that came to knowledge after the Snowden leak,” said Marilia Maciel, a researcher who works on Internet security policy at Brazil’s Fundacao Getulio Vargas.
To do this, Rousseff proposed a set of ambitious, and controversial, measures that include: constructing submarine cables that do not route through the US, building internet exchange points in Brazil, creating an encrypted email service through the state postal service and having Facebook, Google and other companies store data by Brazilians on servers in Brazil.
“I think that there is a feeling that the US has always had a prominent role in internet governance and they want to change that,” Maciel said. “The conversation is under way, and it became prominent last year at Dubai.”
It’s the conversation at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) Dubai that has internet executives offering alarmist warnings about a balkanized internet that suppresses online freedom. There, Russia and China explicitly stated their hopes to take control of the internet away from the US.
At a discussion in New York last week, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said he was more concerned about a balkanized internet thanNSA surveillance and government spying.
The real danger [from] the publicity about all of this is that other countries will begin to put very serious encryption – we use the term ‘balkanization’ in general – to essentially split the internet and that the internet’s going to be much more country specific,” Schmidt said. “That would be a very bad thing, it would really break the way the internet works, and I think that’s what I worry about.”
Merlyna Lim, a visiting research scholar at Princeton University’s Center for Information and Technology Policy, said that balkanization is unlikely because of the significant technological, social, political and economic factors that would need to fall into place for it to become a reality.
“I don’t think there are many countries that want to isolate themselves, from the US especially, at least for economic reasons,” said Lim.
Lim said that the internet is also more localized than often portrayed because as the amount of people who use the internet increases, they turn to sites in their own language and within their own communities.
“Internet is neither truly global nor truly nation-state, it is just in-between, it has always been like that and it was an illusion that the internet was totally global,” said Lim. “Having global communities? It never happened – in so many ways, internet has become more local.”
Rousseff, however, is expected to bring the conversation about the role of the US government and US-based corporate multinationals to a global stage at the UN General Assembly at the end of this month.
And by discussing these measures now, Rousseff is taking the unusual step of having a diplomatic conversation about cyber espionage, said Camille François, a researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center who has worked for Google and the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).
“This is a conversation, in the open, about expectations: what countries expect from each other in that realm and how what they can leverage – domestic law, international law, technologies, etc – to enable this state of peace,” said François.
She said that the internet isn’t inherently US-centric, even though “a significant part of Brazilians’ experience of the Internet is shaped by US companies, and they obey American law.”
At a practical level, it would be “very, very difficult” for Brazil to cut its internet off from the rest of the world, said Andrew Blum, author of Tubes. This is in part because in the last five years, the power of the internet has increasingly been put in the hands of companies like Google that have created super-networks that operate autonomously.
Blum said the power a tech giant like Google has is comparable to a person who owns an airplane, as opposed to a person with a ticket to ride – owning a network means less inspection into who visits their properties and what the company is doing with its network.
“This Brazil proposal is a moment of correction against the incredible growth and power of the supernetworks,” said Blum.
By offering these proposals, the Brazil government has led some to draw an equivalence with site-blocking in countries such as China, Iran and Bahrain. “With Brazil it’s a bit trickier, because I think they’ve got the right intent,” said Jillian York, director for international freedom at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But I do think it sets a really dangerous precedent, so in that sense it’s a bad idea – in the sense that if Brazil does it, you’re going to see all sorts of other countries going to do it.”
She said other countries may use Brazil’s actions as a bargaining tool within their own countries, as China has done with the NSA surveillance revelations.
York said she thinks the chances of Brazil achieving internet sovereignty from the US are “probably very slim,” primarily because companies like Google and Facebook need to comply with requests to move their data servers in the country.
“I think that it is a threat in and of itself to corral data off into any given country, because the Brazil government now is pretty progressive, but what if the next one’s not,” York said. “If all your data is in your country, you’re sort of risking what’s happening in Iran right now, with Iran trying to cut off the Internet.