If you thought the astounding (and ongoing) revelations about the NSA’s PRISM regime were going to hurt America’s reputation, it appears you were right. Freedom House just made it official.
In an exclusive statement to Future Tense, the internationally renowned rights watchdog said it’s going to downgrade the U.S. in its annual Internet freedom rankings.
“The revelation of this program will weaken the United States’ score on the survey,” the organization told me in an email.
The project director for Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net initiative, Sanja Tatic Kelly, elaborated further in another email (emphasis added):“[S]ome of the recent revelations were already known to the internet freedom community, albeit perhaps not the full scope of them. Consequently, the United States already has a pretty poor rating on our methodology when it comes to surveillance issues. However, with this week’s revelations, as well as the recently uncovered surveillance of AP journalists, that rating is going to drop even further.”
Kelly went on to emphasize that, compared with other countries around the world, the U.S. “does still have pretty well functioning political institutions and free press.” However, she added that PRISM poses “unique” challenges to freedom. In her words:“What makes the situation in the U.S. unique, however, is that our government is more technologically sophisticated than most others and many major internet companies are based in the United States, allowing the government to conduct surveillance of much greater magnitude.”
The official Freedom House statement made a point of saying America’s online freedom ranking probably won’t plummet, noting, “the effect will likely be fairly modest, as the current score takes into consideration what was already known about the government’s extensive electronic surveillance activities.”
As of September, Freedom House listed the United States as the second-most “free” country in terms of Internet freedoms (within a 47-country sample), outranked only by Estonia. The rankings were based on three general criteria: “Obstacles to Access” (e.g. keeping citizens from being able to access computers or specific applications), “Limits on Content” (e.g. blocking, censoring, or altering online content), and “Violations of User Rights” (e.g. surveillance or jailing of online dissidents). The PRISM revelations have nothing to do with the first two criteria, but definitely deal a huge blow on the third.
The Obama administration is already being compared to the Chinese Communist Party—arguably the world’s most infamous limiter of online freedoms. No doubt, PRISM makes the U.S. government (as well as the government of the U.K., which seems to have been in on the action) look like an opponent of the open Web, snooping through files and communications. But as massive as this digital espionage effort is, can we really call the U.S. an “Enemy of the Internet,” to use the terminology of Reporters Without Borders?
Not exactly—but PRISM does to an extent resemble the surveillance programs of Internet enemies like China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. What’s new here is that we can evenmention America in the same sentence as those countries now, when it comes to online freedom—something that was almost unthinkable just a few days ago.
For some perspective, let’s take a look at how the U.S. government now stacks up against some of the world’s best-known online oppressors (Note: in an attempt to avoid too many apples-and-oranges comparisons, I’ve tried to focus mostly on countries with high Internet penetration and a substantial middle class):
China: One big similarity here: the relationship between the central government and private companies. Chinese netizens live in the shadow of restrictions that are collectively referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” As of 2010, a law has been in place that requires all telecom operators and Internet service providers to take orders from the government during investigations about the leaking of state secrets. PRISM appears to have functioned largely via some level of cooperation from major online firms like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Apple (though many of them have issued official denials of involvement). If you’re online in China, unless you use a VPN or some other kind of workaround, there is an extremely high chance that you’re being tracked. If PRISM is as widespread as is alleged, that could very easily be true here, too.
Of course, China’s online repression is far more extreme than America’s on almost every other count (if we jailed bloggers here like the CCP does there, Glenn Greenwald would be serving hard time, not getting on the front page of the Guardian). And the U.S. doesn’t appear to have been looking for anything beyond national-security information, as opposed to touchy political speech. But the combination of a huge Internet user base and cooperation between corporations and the government to spy on that user base—well, that seems a little too familiar now.
Russia: It’s actually possible that Russian netizens are under less surveillance than we are here in the United States. Despite its best efforts, the Russian government doesn’t appear to have any coherent infrastructure for massive surveillance. ISPs are required to install software that allows the police to monitor Internet traffic, but there have been no reported uses of the software. Government technology to find and flag “extremist” sites has been faulty and remains unimplemented. Legislation passed in 2007 gave the government permission to intercept online data without a warrant, but actual use of that law has largely been absent in major population centers like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
That doesn’t mean Russia doesn’t attack online freedoms, of course. Bloggers are regularly intimidated, the state demands that ISPs provide user data for dissidents, and so on. But what’s interesting to see here is that the U.S. appears to have a surveillance system that is so streamlined and efficient as to be the stuff of dreams for the Putin regime.
Iran: Luckily, PRISM doesn’t get anywhere near the aggressive attacks on user rights that Iranian netizens face. That said, Iran has a relatively high Internet usership for the Middle East—users just can’t surf freely. The mullahs make no secret of their contempt for free speech, enforcing laws against any material opposing state interests or Islam. Surveillance is widespread, too: The regime reportedly keeps connection speeds deliberately low, so as to make it easier to monitor and filter content. Indeed, Iran is in the process of completing a so-called “clean Internet”—a self-contained, state-controlled intranet that will be used as an alternative to the Internet. We’re still a far way off from anything like that.
Bahrain: The U.S. doesn’t go nearly as far as this tumultuous monarchy, but it has a similar philosophy of keeping its fingers in as many online pies as possible. Bahrain’s Internet usership is possibly the highest of any Arab state, but virtually no user is safe from the government’s watchful eye. As Reporters Without Borders puts it, “The royal family is represented in all areas of Internet management and has sophisticated tools at its disposal for spying on its subjects.” Not only that, but the government makes no secret of its iron fist: It regularly hacks dissidents’ Twitter and Facebook accounts, demands online passwords during interrogations, and uses malware to trawl every corner of the Bahraini Web. America is nowhere near that, thank goodness.
South Korea: User liberties are severely curtailed in this otherwise pretty liberal democracy, but not through a PRISM-like surveillance regime. Instead, the government in Seoul keeps tabs on netizens through what’s known as Resident Registration Numbers. They’re serial numbers assigned to every citizen born in Korea, and users are required to use them while using almost all online services. They’re not spied upon, per se, but if someone does something Seoul doesn’t like, he or she can face arrests, raids, or other unpleasantness. (See the case of Park Jung-geun, indicted for retweeting the official North Korean Twitter account.) We don’t have anything resembling RNNs in the U.S.
North Korea: Even the most paranoid civil libertarian can take some comfort in knowing we’re light years away from the Hermit Kingdom. We may be under watch, but at least wehave the Internet, instead of a weird national intranet filled with sanitized information and happy-birthday messages.
So the U.S. is still one of the freer places to be an Internet user. But we’re apparently much closer to these authoritarian states than many of us had imagined—and the scary thing is, we’re really good at what we do. Our days as a respected beacon of near-total online liberty are probably at an end.
The National Security Agency (NSA) has acknowledged in a new classified briefing that it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls….
Hold the phone. (Get it?) The NSA claims “it does not need court authorization to listen to domestic phone calls.” The Fourth Amendment begs to differ.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
How unreasonable are all of these probable-cause-and-warrant-free listening expeditions?
(T)he Justice Department has secretly interpreted federal surveillance law to permit thousands of low-ranking analysts to eavesdrop on phone calls….
If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required….
Edward Snowden – the guy who first alerted us to this NSA-PRISM-NUCLEON mess – has had his veracity (and mental stability) challenged for claiming Little-Old-He could unilaterally “wiretap anyone from you or your accountant to a federal judge to even the president.”
Not so wrong after all.
When some of us responded to all of this with alarm, we too were summarily dismissed.
The paranoid imagine that government eavesdroppers are listening in on their phone conversations and reading their intimate emails.
Someone is listening. Thousands of someones (at least), in fact. (And reading – please stay tuned.) Not so paranoid after all.
“Legal” is highly dubious. How about “limited?”
That’s a fairly expansive definition of “limited.”
By now, the following claim – now just nine days old – seems quaint and antiquated. Not to mention fundamentally untrue.
What about our fantasies of the government reading our emails (and text messages, and instant messages, and…)?
(NSA phone call self-)authorization appears to extend to e-mail and text messages too….
Because the same legal standards that apply to phone calls also apply to e-mail messages, text messages, and instant messages, being able to listen to phone calls would mean the NSA analysts could also access the contents of Internet communications too without going before a court and seeking approval.
But wait – we were told it was just the email and Internet metadata – not the content.
Again, not so much.
We have throughout this nightmare awakening had Big Government proponents and officials aplenty – up to and repeatedly including the President – lying their faces off about what is actually happening with our phone calls, emails and all things Internet.
Preemptively listening to, peeking at and harvesting the data of hundreds of millions of innocent Americans is not a “national security” prerogative. It is, however, a Big Brother imperative.
So when we have warned you about things like:
And the Left’s response is:
We can all be forgiven for being more than a little skeptical. On Net Neutrality – and just about everything else.
UPDATE #1: Obama Administration Director of National Intelligence James Clapper late last night released a statement denying most or all of the above. Which in part reads:
“The statement that a single analyst can eavesdrop on domestic communications without proper legal authorization is incorrect and was not briefed to Congress.”
This is the same James Clapper that in a March 12 Congressional hearing lied to Oregon Democrat Senator Ron Wyden – denying that trillions of Verizon domestic phone call sweeps were occurring.
The Director of National Intelligence lied to Congress about NSA surveillance. What else will he lie about?
Good question. Is it possible (probable?) that Clapper is lying again here? Indeed it is.
Which makes the following even more pathetic.
UPDATE #2: New York Democrat Congressman Jerry Nadler was a key original source for this eavesdropping story.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, disclosed on Thursday that during a secret briefing to members of Congress, he was told that the contents of a phone call could be accessed “simply based on an analyst deciding that.”
If the NSA wants “to listen to the phone,” an analyst’s decision is sufficient, without any other legal authorization required, Nadler said he learned. “I was rather startled,” said Nadler, an attorney and congressman who serves on the House Judiciary committee….
In prostrating response to the statement from proven liar James Clapper – a member of the proven-lying Obama Administration – Congressman Nadler has retreated into being a good Democrat, but a troublingly bad representative of We the People and our Constitutional rights.
James Owens, a spokesman for Nadler, provided a statement on Sunday morning, a day after this (original) article was published, saying:
“I am pleased that the administration has reiterated that, as I have always believed, the NSA cannot listen to the content of Americans’ phone calls without a specific warrant.”
Owens said he couldn’t comment on what assurances from the Obama administration Nadler was referring to, and said Nadler was unavailable for an interview.
Congressman Nadler was thus also unavailable to explain why or how this latest Obama Administration assertion, after all of these lies, is any more believable.
And is Congressman Nadler addled? Was the briefing he (and obviously, ostensibly other Members) attended merely a figment of his imagination?
Hard to think so. Especially since he – and Snowdon – aren’t the only people to make similar Administration snooping claims:
Senate Intelligence committee chairperson Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) confirmed on Thursday, according to the report, that a court order is not necessary for the NSA to search its call data database that it collects under secret orders from major U.S. telecom firms….
(F)ormer FBI counter-terrorism agent Tim Clemente disclosed to CNN that under certain investigations relating to the protection of national security, his former employer could access call records and contents of those calls.
“All of that stuff is being captured as we speak whether we know it or like it or not,” he claimed.
It is difficult under these circumstances – with all of these corroborating statements – to not think that what best represents the truth is what Congressman Nadler said first.
Given that the serially untruthful Obama Administration are the only ones denying it.
$450,000 of YOUR tax dollars will be spent by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) to “to support programs that increase protection of transgender persons who face acute forms of violence and harassment.”
This is so ridiculous, it’s actually hysterical.
While ObamaCare was being debated in the House, the bill’s supporters were being accused of burdening Americans with expensive health care while keeping generous coverage for themselves at taxpayers’ expense.
In order to refute that allegation and build confidence in ObamaCare, a section was added to the bill. This new section orders that all members of Congress get their coverage through ObamaCare. This includes staff members of congressmen, as well.
A Democratic Congressman, John Larson (D-CT) said that this is “simply not fair.” Funny, coming from a vocal ObamaCare supporter.
Apparently Mr. Larson thinks it is “simply not fair” that he is forced to be covered with ObamaCare — but that it is totally fine to impose the health coverage system on all other Americans.
Imagine your child hearing the Pledge of Allegiance over the loudspeaker — but instead of saying “one nation under God,” the students on the loudspeaker say “one nation under Allah.”
Well, that’s what happened at Rocky Mountain High School in Colorado on Monday.
Like most Democrat-controlled, big cities, New York City has one of the most stringent gun-control schemes in America. But this heavy emphasis on banning guns has not stopped a recent rise in murders in the Big Apple.
Over a 48 hour period between June 11 to June 13 25 people were killed with firearms in New York. Victims were from all over the city. In fact, the only part of the city that didn’t experience a shooting over the 48-hour period was Staten Island!
Eight were shot in the Bronx, four in Queens, one in Manhattan, and a whopping twelve in Brooklyn. The fellow killed in Manhattan was shot during the day amongst a crowd of people.
But notice that New York’s “Safe Gun Act” hasn’t really done much to stop crimes committed with guns. It may have stopped law-abiding citizens from being able to respond to life-threatening attacks with their ownguns, of course.
Due to the anti-gun laws, it is practically impossible for law-abiding citizens to get guns for themselves. But, oh, boy do the crooks have them. According to news reports 100 percent of this gun crime spree was perpetrated with guns held illegally in criminal hands.
Notice that hundreds in not thousands of crimes every year are stopped by legal gun owners. Take the woman in California that stopped a home invasion with her firearm. Or the Florida business owner who cornered and captured a crook in his store. Or the boy that used a gun to save his father’s life.
The West Virginia eight-grader arrested and suspended over his National Rifle Association T-shirt with an image of a firearm is now facing a $500 fine and a year in jail.
A judge is allowing prosecutors to move forward with charging Jared Marcum, 14, with obstructing an officer, WOWK-TV reported.
The protesters in Taksim Gezi Park have made an important discovery: The easiest way to get people to understand and care about your cause is to latch on to some pop-culture signifiers.
Now in the third week of demonstrations over a number of grievances against the Turkish government, including its violent response to initial park sit-in, the Occupy Gezi movement appropriated from Les Miserables the French rebel song, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in a carefully organized choral number that has begun to spread on YouTube.
National Security Administration whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed his identity to The Guardian newspaper on Sunday, was a donor to former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s presidential campaign.