January 11, 2016
Recent legal initiatives by governments in China and the United Kingdom illustrate the current trend to weaken the digital privacy rights of individuals in the name of enhanced national security. These government actions undermine civil liberties and can reduce the economic benefits associated with information and communications technologies. If left unrestrained, surveillance by governments around the world poses a critical threat to the future of digital media.
The Chinese government recently implemented new anti-terrorism laws that can have significant impact on digital communications. The new laws require that all telecommunications and Internet service providers operating in China must be prepared to cooperate with all government surveillance demands for communications and other digital content. Such cooperation must include maintenance of technical interfaces that facilitate surveillance, decryption of encrypted materials, and provision of all necessary technical support for government surveillance activities.
In order to ensure compliance with the surveillance requirements and other laws affecting digital communications and content, the Chinese government now reportedly requires that it be provided with a physical presence in all Internet and online service companies operating in China. That presence apparently includes both government personnel and equipment located on site in the networks and other operation facilities of the private companies. This mandatory physical on site presence is intended, in part, to facilitate compliance with the surveillance requirements.
Note that the efforts to expand government digital surveillance are not confined to nations with a history of intrusive government monitoring of citizens. For example, the United Kingdom has expanded its digital surveillance programs substantially in recent years, purportedly as part of its efforts to block terrorist activity. In many ways, digital surveillance efforts by traditionally liberal national governments now parallel those launched by traditionally repressive regimes.
The U.K. government is considering additional digital surveillance legislation which would make it illegal for private companies to inform their customers and users of government surveillance activities. In response to expanded government surveillance efforts in the U.K., several major Internet and technology companies advised their users that they would inform those users when the companies had reason to believe that government surveillance activities could affect the users. Responding to those initiatives by the commercial companies, the U.K. government is now considering legislation which would make such notifications to users illegal.
Other countries that have traditionally been strong defenders of civil liberties now routinely engage in digital surveillance, at the expense of personal privacy for citizens. This issue continues to be a major source of debate and conflict in the United States, for example, as U.S. intelligence and law enforcement authorities continue to insist that broad digital surveillance powers are necessary to promote national security.
The current global environment in which both traditionally repressive and traditionally open governments are engaged in a rush to expand and re-enforce their digital surveillance abilities presents a major threat to privacy and civil liberties around the world. These surveillance efforts are inconsistent with fundamental freedoms and civil values. They can also undermine efforts to foster technical and commercial innovation, as well as economic growth. Digital surveillance activities should be limited and subject to strict oversight and controls, or they will threaten the vitality of the global digital communications infrastructure.