Is the Internet too American? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.07.2013
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Is the Internet too American?

Why is America so busily collecting data? The answer is simple: because it can. The Internet is in the hands of US companies and access to data is easy. An analysis by DW Internet expert Jörg Brunsmann.

There's a certain sense of irony to it: without European research money, the US would most likely not be in a position to access tons of data from the Internet. Because the most popular part of the Internet today, the World Wide Web, and the basis for it, was developed in the late 1980s at the European research center CERN in Switzerland.

CERN is a research facility formed in cooperation with several European countries. And while the Internet itself has been around for much longer, it used to be merely a network for scientists and experts with little interest and significance for a broader public. It was only at CERN and under the leadership of Briton Tim Berners-Lee that this changed. The WWW was the starting point for the Internet as a modern mass medium.

Massive US access to data

The problem the Europeans have is that they created the basis for the Internet but further development and its commercial profits are tightly held in the hands of American companies. This is especially obvious when taking a look at the top five Internet companies. The globally most popular sites are Facebook, Google, YouTube, Yahoo and Amazon. The first foreign company comes in at number six, the Chinese search engine Baidu, a company that doesn't have its headquarters in the US.

Google logo

Are the likes of Google providing too much data too easily to US authorities?

It's also notable that those companies are not big simply because they're tapping the huge US market but they are also incredibly successful in the rest of the world too. Whether it's Norway, Croatia or Portugal: In many European countries, Facebook is the most popular website.

For agencies like the NSA in the US, this is a perfect situation. Added to this, the Patriot Act has made it a lot easier to access data and information for the sake of national security. The bill was passed in October 2001 in an immediate reaction to the September 11 attacks and it gives permission to access data without having to obtain prior permission from a court. And the law is also applicable to US companies operating outside the US. That means that even when Facebook, Google and the like store their data outside of the US, the secret services would still be able to access it.

In perfect order

The US secret service therefore has more ways and opportunities to tap information than any other agency in the world. And it also makes their work considerably easier. The opportunity to simply access data from US companies saves the NSA tons of work.

US company servers provide the data in order and shape. It's a different story if you – like the British secret service – were to tap Internet cables and just get a random mass of data you'd still have to sort and possibly even decode. So the information stored by US companies is a lot more interesting and useful.

A backdoor in computer operating systems?

With a little imagination, the scenario can be developed further. The NSA might have access to way more sources of data than we currently know. It's not only the Internet where US companies are successful, but they're also active in the infrastructure that's behind the World Wide Web.

The most common operating system for computers is Microsoft Windows. And for a long time there have been speculations that the company might have included a back door in their software for the NSA. There's no proof but such a backdoor could give the secret service access to millions of computers around the globe. Also in other sectors like smartphones, it is US companies like Apple, Google or Cisco that are the major players.

Linux as a European alternative

Facebook logo

Facebook is one of the world's most popular websites

It's unlikely that anywhere in Europe a company could make do entirely without any computers or related products from US companies. So far this hasn't been a problem because Washington was seen as a friend and a reliable partner. But after the data scandals this statement is more difficult to justify.

The question though is which alternatives Europe has? With operating systems there's only one alternative: Linux. The unique factor here is that the program code is open source. Anyone can view it, check it and even change it. So even if there would be a backdoor for the NSA, someone would most likely uncover it.

Linux also is the best example that Europe, at least, in terms of Internet and computers, still has a somewhat different mindset to the US: The development of Linux was started in the early 1990s by a European: Linus Torvalds from Finland.

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