Last week, a bright idealistic young man named Edward Snowden almost single-handedly opened the lid on the U.S. National Security Agency’s PRISM program, a program which marks the bleakest moment yet in the history of the Internet due to its scope, exact country of origin and implications.
In terms of scope, major transnational service providers ranging from Google to Apple are involved in allowing the NSA to access their customers’ data for the purposes of “surveillance.” Nearly all types of services ranging from email to VoIP have come within the program’s scope and it originates in a country which dominates the world’s Internet resources – a fact which is acknowledged in the information leaked by Snowden clearly states: “Much of the world’s communications flow through the U.S.” and the information is accessible. The case indicates that through outsourcing and contracting, Big Brother is breaching the fundamental rights of citizens by getting unfettered access to their most personal communications.
As the case unfolds, there are many things to worry about. How do we make sense of the fact that the market and the state colluded in the abuse of private information via what represents the backbone of many modern day infrastructures? How do we rationalize the character of Snowden and his fellow whistleblowers? How do we understand the one-sided cyber attack accusations the U.S. has poured upon China in the past few months? To what degree have foreign users of these Internet services fallen victim to this project? Among all these suspicions, let us clarify two types of American personality.
First of all, Snowden’s case offers us a rare chance to reexamine the integrity of American politicians and the management of American-dominant Internet companies, and it appears that while many of these individuals verbally attack other nations and people in the name of freedom and democracy, they ignore America’s worsening internal situation. In an eloquent speech on Internet freedom, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that if Internet companies can’t act as “responsible stewards of their own personal information,” then they would lose customers and their survival would be threatened. In the same speech, she also urged U.S. media companies to take a proactive role in challenging foreign governments’ demands for censorship and surveillance.
Clinton was certainly under the impression that her own government was above reproach on these matters, when every piece of evidence, whether in hindsight or not, suggests the opposite. We must also remember that Clinton’s Internet freedom speech was addressing Google’s grand withdrawal from China; so, following the logical thread of her speech, it is surely now time for Google to take responsibility for leaking data and information to the NSA and withdraw from the U.S. market. David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president and chief legal officer, justified Google’s withdrawal from China by citing state “surveillance” and the “fact” that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists were being “routinely accessed by third parties”. If Google wants to be consistent with its past pronouncements, the PRISM program gives the Internet giant much more cause for action.
We can see, therefore, that when American politicians and businessmen make accusatory remarks, their eyes are firmly fixed on foreign countries and they turn a blind eye to their own misdeeds. This clearly calls into question the integrity of these rich, powerful and influential figures and gives the definite impression that the U.S. bases its own legitimacy not on good domestic governance but on stigmatizing foreign practices.
Perhaps the most confusing issue revolves around the hypocrisy of those who preach about Internet freedom abroad while they stifle it at home. The Fudan University students who listened intently to President Obama’s speech about Internet freedom and censorship at a town hall-style meeting in Shanghai in 2009 certainly took his remarks seriously. How must they be feeling now that it is obvious that President Obama himself does not believe his own Internet rhetoric? In the same vein, many like-minded young Chinese once presented flowers to Google’s Beijing headquarters to pay tribute to its “brave” and outspoken challenge to perceived state surveillance by the Chinese government. How must they be feeling in light of Google’s involvement in PRISM and with the knowledge that Google’s action against China is only part of its commercial strategy? An increasing number of Chinese people will come to understand that the democratization of domestic Chinese media is entirely different from that which happens abroad.
Second, let us look at another kind of American personality. How can we understand and explain Snowden and similar figures? These young idealists, including the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who helped to bring down President Nixon in the Watergate affair, Wiki leaks’ Julian Assange and former American soldier Bradley Manning, among others, can be categorized as the “bright feathers” of our time, to borrow some words from the popular American movie The Shawshank Redemption. Plus, they all embody the courage to fight against the system, which the film also celebrates. The 25-year old Manning is now a prisoner, having been arrested in May 2010 in Iraq on suspicion of having passed classified material to WikiLeaks. Assange has been confined in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for nearly a year. Snowden is on the run in Hong Kong. While human rights activists from developing countries (defined by Western apparatus for sure) are often blessed with a choice of hiding places, we are now seeing the dilemma of Western dissidents. For this reason China, despite the fact that it does not have a good reputation as far as Internet governance is concerned, should move boldly and grant Snowden asylum.
After all, what the American and British authorities have done to figures such as Snowden represents a challenge to the common sense of the global public. These people are too brilliant to be caged. Their feathers are too bright. For the surfacing evils that have been done and continue to be committed by the state-market alliance in the digital age, Snowden and those like him represent the hope and possibility that counter measures exist to combat these evils. Unfortunately, those who proclaim to the world “don’t be evil” are themselves willing cooperators in the whole game and their profit-driven nature has led them to play a major role in this evil. If intelligence work can be contracted or outsourced this way, anything can.
This is the reason why we appreciate and salute the efforts of Snowden et al, who have gambled their career, family, personal freedom, and even their life to let the global public know what the most powerful force in the world is doing with perhaps the central infrastructure of our age; to make the public aware that this force is acting in an unconstitutional manner and entirely contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To further understand the likes of Snowden, let us end with a narrative by the character Red from the Shawshank Redemption as he rationalizes the escape of his friend Andy: “Some birds are not meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice.”