Internet fades as a beacon of freedom both sides of Atlantic

28 Oct 2015

Yesterday was a historic day in the history of the internet. The US Senate voted in favour of CISA, a bill that legalises snooping, while, over the water in Europe, MEPs passed legislation that creates a back door for net neutrality, potentially dividing the internet into fast lanes and slow lanes.

Last night, the US Senate voted 74 to 21 to pass the controversial Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA), which heightens the powers of government surveillance of US citizens. On the face of it, CISA is designed to defend US business interests against data breaches like those of Sony and Anthem by allowing companies to share cybersecurity threat data with the US authorities, including Homeland Security, the FBI and NSA.

But, in reality, it makes the whole slew of revelations by Edward Snowden on how the NSA was gathering data on users seem like a walk in the park. The fear is that CISA will enable businesses to monitor users and share their information with government without a warrant.

CISA is also an unwelcome development for non-US citizens who use popular US internet services from giants like Apple and Facebook. In fact, companies such as Apple, Dropbox, Google and Facebook all opposed CISA because they fear it will give the US government sweeping powers to spy on Americans.

Bad news

“This is bad news,” explained Mike Weston, CEO of data science consultancy Profusion.

“Just as the EU makes it clear that the ease with which security agencies gain access to commercially held personal data is a serious problem, the US government makes it even easier for this snooping to happen.

“The Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act will make it significantly harder for the US and Europe to agree a replacement for the collapsed Safe Harbour provisions. Without assurances that European citizens’ personal data is protected, it’s hard to see how such an agreement might be reached, putting the ‘thriving transatlantic digital economy’ at risk of stuttering, or worse.

“I think the biggest stumbling block with the current data regulatory climate is that while US citizens are afforded some slight protection via the USA Freedom Act, no protection is currently applied to citizens of other nations.”

 Net neutrality in Europe ushered in through the back door

While the average EU citizen this morning is unaware that a savage law has been passed that means the services of US internet companies they enjoy and take for granted may now be even more compromised, it gets worse.

Just hours before CISA was passed, the European Parliament passed a compromised version of the Single Telecoms Market text without amendments that might have closed serious loopholes in terms of net neutrality.

Of course there is the sop for all of us to swallow – yay, no more roaming charges!

However, critics say that the language of the Single Telecoms Market text is too broad and the protections are too weak.

For example, it contains legislation that allows mobile operators and ISPs not to charge for particular kinds of data, also known as zero rating.

The language allows for providers to charge varying rates for specialised services – precisely the kind of language that flies in the face of the principle of net neutrality.

It is now feared that certain types of content like streaming video may be zero-rated to give one company an advantage over another.

Broken promise

“Today’s vote on the Telecoms Single Market package in the European Parliament constitutes a broken promise both on the end of roaming surcharges and the establishment of net neutrality,” said Julia Reda, member of the European Parliament for the Pirate Party and shadow rapporteur for the Greens/EFA group in the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee.

“The European Parliament’s first reading position in April 2014 proposed far-reaching provisions for the introduction of net neutrality in Europe. In the end, not even the words ‘net neutrality’ survived the closed-door negotiations with the Commission and the Council. The text leaves open critical loopholes. Today, the Parliament decided not to adopt opposition amendments that could have fixed these shortcomings.

“The internet’s open structure is what made it the successful driver of growth and innovation in the digital economy and digital culture that it is today. That providers will be allowed to discriminate against certain traffic not only creates a two-tier internet, it also removes incentives for carriers to extend their capacities,” Reda warned.

So, in the course of one day the internet – that bright shining beacon of openness – saw doors closed, privacy thrown out the window in the US and the paving of a path towards a potential two-tier highway in Europe.

The internet has seen better days.

White House image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years