RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
All the news about NSA spying on the Internet has been especially upsetting for people outside the United States. They don't have the same protection from NSA surveillance that Americans have. In response, many other governments are now saying it's time to downgrade the dominant U.S. role on the Internet.
But as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, some of those changes could undermine Internet privacy, not protect it.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: First, a bit of history from Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University's School of Information Studies. What's revolutionary about the Internet, he says, is that it grew so fast, no one had a chance to get control over it.
MILTON MUELLER: The reason the Internet worked, the reason it created this massive amount of innovation is precisely because, for a brief period of about 10 years, it just completely overcame the telecommunications system of national boundaries. It created a virtual space that was completely interconnected and globalized, and governments had to react to that after the fact.
GJELTEN: To the extent one country dominated the Internet, it was the United States. The only organization with any Internet governance function - it controlled the addressing system - was set up by the United States. And the companies most associated with the Internet around the world - Microsoft, Google, Facebook - are U.S. companies.
Andrew McLaughlin is an Internet entrepreneur and former deputy chief technology officer at the White House. He thinks there's freedom and openness on the Internet in part because it was a U.S. creation.
ANDREW MCLAUGHLIN: Now in the area of free speech, I think it's been a great thing that the United States has had this hugely disproportionate role in providing the Internet's infrastructure because our First Amendment traditions have meant that the U.S. tradition of freedom of speech and freedom of expression has prevailed and really has characterized the Internet globally.
GJELTEN: But if fans of the Internet around the world have been grateful to the United States until now, some of that good will has been undone by news of NSA spying.
MCLAUGHLIN: We've now, kind of, blown it on surveillance, which is to say that the global fear and suspicion about American surveillance is pushing countries to centralize their infrastructures, get the U.S. out of the picture. And I think that will ultimately have negative consequences for free speech as well as for protection of privacy.
GJELTEN: The prime mover demanding changes in the way the Internet is governed is Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. She was furious to learn she was herself a target of NSA surveillance.
PRESIDENT DILMA ROUSSEFF: (Foreign language spoken)
GJELTEN: Speaking at the United Nations last month, Rousseff called for changes in the governance of the Internet. At home, she has suggested that Brazil partially disconnect from U.S.-based parts of the Internet, so Brazilians' online data would be stored in Brazil, supposedly out of the NSA's reach.
The irony here is that putting the Internet more under the control of individual governments may actually leave the citizens in some of those countries more vulnerable to surveillance, if not by the United States, then by their own governments.
As a cybersecurity expert, Bruce Schneier has helped uncover some of the NSA's secret surveillance activity. He is nevertheless alarmed that some people have reacted to the NSA disclosures by proposing to break up the Internet.
BRUCE SCHNEIER: This is bad. All right, this is bad for the Internet. We really need a global Internet. And the NSA's actions embolden these people to say we need more sovereign control. So unfortunately, there's an enormous blowback - which I think can affect the way the Internet works today.
GJELTEN: Last week, the drive to take the Internet away from U.S. control got a huge boost, when the head of the Internet addressing group - the one set up by the United States - endorsed a move to drop its official connection to the U.S. government.
Besides these proposals to change the architecture and governance of the Internet, there's talk of regulating how information can flow around the world, restrictions, for example, on how U.S. companies like Google can operate in other countries. Milton Mueller of Syracuse says that would be costly.
MUELLER: Is it practical in a sense that you can create regulations that block off trade in these information services? Yeah, you can do that. There will be massive sacrifices of economic efficiency. But you can introduce barriers, definitely.
GJELTEN: So, people around the world are angry the NSA has used the Internet for spying. But what to do about it?
The Internet has largely been a free and open space because of the way it was set up. Changing it - even to protect Internet users' freedom - might actually backfire.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.
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