In his new book, The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce Cyber-law scholar and University of California-Davis professor Anupam Chander compares trade on the Internet to trade on the ancient Silk Road and examines governments’ role in regulating such complexities of commerce in the information age.
The book analyzes how neighboring India and China have developed very different paths on the Electronic Silk Road. You note, “those outside China are likely to be less than keen to transfer personal data for processing to a country with few restraints on governmental snooping.” What’s your response to the U.S.’s surveillance program, PRISM?
Recent revelations demonstrate the Chinese government is hardly alone in compelling Trade 2.0 companies to spy on people. We should be careful not to equate Chinese surveillance, often seeking to identify political dissidents, with American surveillance, largely seeking to identify potential terrorists. Just because something is on the Internet does not mean that it should be beyond the law. But the United States government has to assure the world that its surveillance is indeed narrowly restricted to goals that are consistent with democracy and human rights, and that surveillance is implemented through processes subject to highly effective and independent legal checks and controls.
Aside from politically, what are the other implications of PRISM?
This is an economic issue, not just a political one. If people across the world begin to suspect American companies will not treat their information with respect, then they will choose competitors elsewhere. I was in Germany when the accusation that the American government had spied on European governments was made. The Germans were clearly irritated by the accusations of surveillance. Such actions may adversely impact the climate for American companies around the world.
PRISM uses terms intended to identify “foreignness.” Does this threaten the global ties that Trade 2.0 forges?
President Obama announced, “The American people don’t have a Big Brother who is snooping into their business.” But can the President be so sure that the data collected doesn’t include Americans? Indicators of “foreignness” can often prove mistaken. I tell a story of trying to watch an NBC comedy on Hulu.com. Hulu responded since I was outside the United States, it couldn’t show me the program. I was in a Washington, D.C. hotel room. I suspect the problem was the Canadian hotel chain might have contracted with a Canadian Internet service provider for its North American operations. When Americans are told, “don’t worry, only foreigners are targeted,” we might wonder if sometimes the government might gather our information because it has mistaken us as foreign.
You call the Internet “the world’s best route for bringing political and cultural information to the peoples of totalitarian states.” Does chatter about PRISM on China’s micro-blogger support your assertion that forces like Wikileaks, at “the cutting edge both of efforts to thwart undesired cyber-activity and to sidestep those blocks,” are winning in directing this route’s traffic?
The Chinese government is happy to expose Western surveillance, so it has no problem with public discussion of PRISM on the Sina Weibo service. But critiques of Western surveillance have led people to wonder about surveillance at home. The Internet is the most important avenue for individuals to share information with each other, and ultimately, to take control of their lives. Wikileaks offers a different kind of surveillance—surveillance of the state and of corporations. It seems likely that because of the Internet, there will be more disclosures, but it may become hard to sort fact from fiction, as there will be efforts to manipulate the disclosure.