Has PRISM surveillance undermined Internet freedom advocates?

"Bastions of Internet freedom" have become the "enemy within", says ISOC official

The US surveillance program PRISM has severely threatened the continued freedom of Internet advocates, according to Internet Society (ISOC) regional bureau director for Asia-Pacific, Rajnesh Singh.

Recent reports have revealed the NSA, under a program called PRISM, is collecting metadata about US phone calls, which includes information about a call—including time, duration and location—but not the content of the call itself. Also, the NSA is collecting data on Internet traffic from major Internet companies including Google and Microsoft.

“What’s happened with PRISM and the fallout we’ve seen is probably the greatest threat we have seen to the Internet in recent times,” Singh said at an ISOC-AU event last night in Sydney.

Singh, who said he was speaking for himself and not necessarily ISOC as a whole, claimed that the spying program has undermined the positions of Internet advocates in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, which historically have been “bastions of Internet freedom”.

“What’s happened with PRISM is these four or five countries are suddenly the enemy within,” he said. “The argument [for Internet freedom] doesn’t hold water any more and that’s really made work difficult for us.”

At last year’s World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) treaty talks, countries including Russia, China and Iran made proposals to regulate Internet content that could have had “very bad implications for the Internet going forward”, Singh said.

Many of the proposals were defeated through talks leading up to the treaty, he said. “But what happened of course was that the countries at the forefront were Australia, US, UK [and] Canada.”

After news about PRISM broke, a delegate from another country who had supported the four countries in walking out on the treaty told Singh that they now regretted the decision.

According to Singh, the delegate said, “My government is sorry that we didn’t sign the [WCIT treaty] because now we realise what the real agenda was for the US and Australia and the UK and Canada. It wasn’t to protect the Internet; it was to protect their own surveillance interests.”

Singh asked the audience at last night’s event, “How do you respond to something like that?”

A problem for people who oppose PRISM is that the surveillance program appears legal in the US, said David Vaile, executive director of the cyberspace law and policy centre at the University of New South Wales.

“There’s a core issue there that most of it is actually legal,” Vaile said. “That’s a real challenge.”

It’s also difficult to debate the merits of the surveillance program without learning more information, Vaile said.

“How do you do evidence-based policy discussions on the effectiveness of surveillance if the key facts are suppressed and those who know about them are gagged?”

Follow Adam Bender on Twitter: @WatchAdam

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU, or take part in the Computerworld conversation on LinkedIn: Computerworld Australia

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