Turning twenty-five this year, the internet revolution is the largest experiment in ungoverned space in history. Yet, as it continues to transform our world, this explosion in connectivity still raises significant questions about and vulnerabilities in how we have organized ourselves and work through shared challenges.
For example, if the power to connect is available to an increasing universe of people, what constraints—if any—can we impose on the use of that connectivity? Who gets to decide what to connect, through which channels, and with whom?
These questions are bringing long-time struggles to a head: regulation and innovation, crime and law enforcement, and censorship and liberty. And these questions challenge current public and private structures and prompt changes in individuals’ identities.
Whatever the opinion of his actions is, Edward Snowden is a catalyst for a discussion that needs to be confronted—that in fact was already well underway before he appeared on the global stage. Requiring a sober review of shared responsibilities and the appropriate means and ends of our policies, this discussion must recognize that the broad demand for connectivity created vulnerabilities in privacy and individual freedoms.
Fortunately, the underlying features of this debate are similar across the Atlantic. However, the September 11 terrorist attacks and Germany’s history of oppressive state surveillance frame the fears and concerns in both countries’ internal discussion and, thereby, influence the transatlantic debate.
In both Europe and the United States, the role of government is an important question, and technology has outpaced legal frameworks. Responding to this trend, the proposal for “sovereign data” addresses the divergent legal requirements across borders. However, this proposal is highly unpopular in the business sector and runs the risk of fragmenting the internet along state lines, which would threaten connectivity and further enable states that monitor their own citizens.
Although we can encourage citizens to engage in protecting their privacy and business to provide the tools to meet this demand, we still need a firmer platform for policy reforms at the national and international levels. Here, the EU can become the global model for a responsible balance between privacy, individual freedoms, and security. But the United States has a parallel responsibility to maintain the highest standards possible.
Achieving these standards is hampered not only by the bureaucratic momentum behind the intelligence services, whose operational practices are purposefully opaque, but also by competing privacy groups and initiatives.
The challenge of finding the right balance between internet privacy and security is that our interdependence creates both opportunities and vulnerabilities both within our domestic frameworks as well as on the global stage. Yet, the transatlantic relationship has been able to deal with both in the past. .There should be no reason to think it cannot be pursued successfully again.
There is a need to re-assert a stronger sense of shared oversight and mutual confidence in the proportionality of intelligence services on both sides of the Atlantic. However, avoiding the emotional pitfalls in reacting to past overreaches will be difficult. This is ultimately a shared challenge; each government must rebuild the trust and confidence of its own citizens as efforts are also made in rebuilding the trust across borders
Chancellor Angela Merkel was right when she declared that we are in new territory in confronting these challenges. But they offer an opportunity to reset our common concerns as well as efforts to find shared solutions.
A version of the full analysis was presented recently in Tübingen at the German American Institute and Potsdam at the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.