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Obama’s planned wiretapping law would reshape the global Internet

The Obama administration wants Internet companies to build in back doors to their services to eavesdrop on potential terrorists. While the law would have global consequences, the EU can’t do much about it

Logos of Skype and Facebook

Companies like Skype and Facebook would have to build back doors to their system

With cyber terrorism becoming an increasing worry for governments around the world, US officials in recent months have been zeroing in on perceived threats stemming from communications over the Internet.

In May, the Pentagon's new cyber command - while still not fully operational - was launched with the goal of defending the country's 15,000 military networks and carrying out cyber attacks.

In June, the US Senate Homeland Security Committee approved the so-called kill switch bill that critics say could give the president the authority to order Internet companies to turn off their services in times of a national emergency.

And recently, the New York Times revealed that the Obama administration plans to send a new bill to Congress next year that would require all Internet companies to be able to carry out a wiretap order served by the government. The proposed bill would require companies to be technically able to unscramble encrypted messages - essentially forcing them to install back doors into their technologies.

National law, global consequences

The US administration says that since people increasingly use the Internet instead of the phone as their main communication tool, law enforcement officials need broader powers to eavesdrop on potential criminals and terrorists online.

Essentially, the Obama administration wants to extend the rules introduced by the Clinton administration forcing phone companies to install interception capabilities i.e. back doors into their technologies.

"It's terribly naïve, ambitious and dangerous at the same time, Gus Hosein, Policy Director at the non governmental organization Privacy International, told Deutsche Welle about the proposed new law. "It would chill free expression around the world," he added. Since the overwhelming majority of the world's most popular Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook or Twitter are based in the US, they would all have to comply with the new regulations.

What's more, argues Jeanette Hofmann, an Internet specialist at the Social Science Research Center Berlin who also serves as an expert with the Internet commission of the German parliament, the law would not only curb freedom of speech, it would also change the very way we use the Internet today.

A protester attends a demonstration for civil rights and against a governmental control of the internet in Berlin, September 2009

Experts fear the new law would infringe on the right to privacy

"It also concerns trivial things like shopping," she told Deutsche Welle. "We use encryption technologies with many transactions over the Internet on a daily basis. And these transactions wouldn't be secure any longer if backdoors would have to be built in."

Challenge for Skype

Popular services that rely on so called peer to peer technology - a decentralized way of using different computers to communicate - like Skype might become illegal and might have to change their business model in order to comply with the new law.

According to the experts, the proposed bill is counterproductive to the Obama administration's intended goal.

"The major point is that this legislation makes the Internet not more, but less secure," notes Hofmann. "We will all suffer from undesired side effects of such legislation."

As an example of what can happen when companies are forced to build back doors into their system Hosein cites an incident that occurred in 2004 in Greece.

"Somebody had somehow gained access to the back door of Vodafone's mobile network in Greece and was able to listen in to all the communications of the Greek prime minister, the Greek cabinet and even some American government officials in Greece. And this was at the time of the Olympics where security was at an all-time high. And to this day we have no idea who perpetrated that. But if you build these back doors, bad people will get access in that way."

Other countries could follow US lead

So can Europeans do anything to prevent the bill from becoming law that would affect them?

Not really, say the experts.

Network cables

Many countries would want the capability to access company data

With 90 percent of global technology firms that deal with telecommunications based in the US, the Obama administration is essentially the only government able to push and enforce such a law that will affect the Internet worldwide, says Hosein, who doesn't expect much opposition coming from other countries anyway.

"Every government wants the ability to do this," he argues. "The reason they can't is first it's illiberal, second it's going to harm their industry and third they don't have jurisdiction over these companies. But once the Obama administration says we will require this of the largest technology market on earth, then [for example ]the Saudis, Germany, the UK, the Iranians, they are all going to be rushing to get access the same way."

Jeanette Hofmann believes that technical and political activists may have a better shot to influence the Obama administration's plans than EU officials. "My feeling is that the European commission often lacks the spine to say no to the US government."

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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