WASHINGTON -- Recent revelations about the National Security Agency's (NSA) Internet surveillance program have stirred debate in the United States, raised concern among Washington's allies, and sent the Obama administration scrambling for explanations.
They could also be a boon to authoritarian regimes around the world.
Internet experts say Washington's covert program to track the online activity of foreigners by tapping into the servers of Facebook, Google, Skype, and other U.S. companies could play directly into the hands of repressive regimes. The revelation could provide them with potentially powerful justification for existing programs that restrict online freedoms -- as well as cover for implementing new measures.
Ronald Deibert, the director of the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, one of the world's foremost research centers on how cyberspace, global security, and human rights interrelate, says the United States has now largely ceded the moral high ground on Internet freedom.
"As countries realize that a lot of the structural power conferred on the United States and other countries comes from their ability to essentially coerce domestic telecommunications carriers into colluding with their intercept and wiretap programs, countries around the world will quickly look to rectify that by building and encouraging their own national networks and subjecting them to their own territorialized controls," Deibert says. "That naturally leads to a spiral towards a more Balkanized Internet. It is really a kind of perverse set of unintended consequences that we're nurturing."
"National Internets" already exist in North Korea and Cuba and are reportedly being developed in Iran.
Short of public calls for such comprehensive control, the NSA scandal has already been used to argue for tightening the screws on the Internet in countries with troubling rights records, such as Russia.
In an interview with "The New York Times" on July 14, Ruslan Gattarov, a lawmaker in Russia's upper house of parliament, said, "We need to quickly put these huge transnational companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook under national control." He called the need for such steps "the lesson [Edward Snowden] taught us," a reference to the former NSA contractor who leaked details of the U.S. electronic-surveillance program.
U.S. Internet companies operating in Russia and a host of other countries already face pressure from governmental bodies or law enforcement to share data. Experts say such pressure is now likely to intensify.
Gattarov, who created a "Commission on the Development of Information Society" in the Russian parliament in the wake of the NSA revelations, has also announced an investigation into whether companies such Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo violate domestic data-protection laws or should be required to amend user agreements.
Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy chairman of the ruling United Russia faction in the State Duma, has proposed legislation that would require such companies to keep data on Russian users on servers inside the country, which would, for example, make them subject to search warrants.
The University of Toronto's Deibert says the NSA affair could also lead to renewed calls for an international agreement on cyberspace governance -- calls that Internet freedom advocates and Western governments have found problematic in the past.
He recalls a "code of conduct" for cyberspace proposed by China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan at the UN General Assembly in 2011 that favored state controls.
"The proposals that were made by Russia and other countries at the UN were more or less fumbles politically and were scuttled for that reason," Deibert says. "But in the wake of the NSA revelation, I am sure those types of proposals will be resurrected and find much greater traction among a wide range of swing countries which no doubt are now looking with a great deal of skepticism towards the United States-led Internet freedom agenda."
Some have also expressed concern that the U.S. government's explanation for its surveillance program -- legitimate or not -- could be manipulated by repressive governments: Washington has defended the program as a legally authorized method of helping to guard the country against terrorist attacks. Countries ranging from China to Belarus to Uzbekistan have previously rationalized pervasive online censorship under the banner of national security.
Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on internet freedom at the New America Foundation in Washington, says the United States can still work against the misuse of the NSA revelations by foreign governments.
Implementing reforms and ensuring accountability is the way to do so, she says.
"The United States needs to absolutely bring its system of surveillance and national security into line with constitutional checks and balances and if it fails to do so, I think then rest of the world will use our failure to do so as an excuse to be unaccountable themselves," MacKinnon says. "Unless and until we begin to lead by example, unfortunately, things are not going to be pretty."
At a Congressional hearing on the NSA scandal on July 17, U.S. senators demanded increased oversight of government surveillance. Some vowed to curtail the government's authority to carry out the program.