A high-level Internet freedom conference, that concluded in the Tunisian capital on Tuesday, was overshadowed by the recent U.S. internet surveillance scandal.
The U.S. government, a founding member of the Internet Freedom Coalition, and U.S.-based tech giant Google came under attack by dozens of human rights activists, internet researchers and computer engineers who attended the two-day conference.
The attacks came in response to this month’s revelation that the American National Security Agency (NSA) has been running a large-scale international surveillance program gathering data on internet users around the world by accessing the serves of tech-giants such as Google and Apple. Some of the most targeted countries are located in the Middle East and include Iran, Egypt and Jordan.
The NSA access, according to The Guardian newspaper, is part of a previously undisclosed program called Prism. The program allows U.S. officials to collect information on internet users, including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, according to an official document obtained by the newspaper.
In light of the extensive program of surveillance, many called into question the credibility of the U.S. government and Google’s longtime advocacy for an Internet environment free of censorship and surveillance.
“This revelation calls into question a lot of the agendas that parts of the U.S. government have been pushing about, such as democracy, freedom of expression and all this other stuff,” said Elenor Saita, Technical director at the International Modern Media Institute.
“While it is ok for the government to not be monolithic, there should be some fundamental level of congruency, and it isn’t there right now,” she added.
Some parts of the government, mainly the (NSA) are to blame for breaching online users’ privacy, Saita said. But the government as whole, including the president, is responsible for the lack of oversight over the “black state,” she added.
U.S. President Barack Obama defended the government’s top-secret surveillance program in a television interview broadcast Monday on PBS. Obama insisted that the National Security Agency is operating its phone and Internet monitoring efforts within the law.
Google tries to clear its name
The reports that U.S. security agencies have access to servers belonging to Google, which has publicly championed Internet freedoms in the past, has prompted the tech giant to launch a campaign to clear itself from responsibility.
For that purpose, Google dedicated part of its Big Tent, held on the sidelines of the Internet Freedom Coalition, to clear itself of any wrongdoing.
Ross LaJeunesse, Google’s Global Head of Free Expression and International Relations, said the company does not have a backdoor or a direct path for governments to access user information.
“We do not entertain blanket requests for user data from governments,” LaJeunesse said.
He added that Google does receive requests from the government for user information, but that it only responds to limited requests that “comply with the legal process.
“We often push back on those government requests if we feel the request is not legal,” he said.
He added that Google had never publically discussed the requests, until the program of surveillance came to light after whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents to the press.
In a previous statement by Google, the tech giant denied even being aware that the program existed.
Ross added that Google seeks to be transparent to its users.
“Transparency is important and we take our responsibilities and duties to our users very seriously. People have a right to know what their governments are asking for,” he said.
Despite his statements, Saita, who is also Principle Engineer for the Open Internet tools Project, criticized Google for not doing more to lobby against the U.S. surveillance program, instead of simply campaigning to reform its credibility.
Jacob Appelbaum, computer security researcher at the Tor Project, a free software implementation that enables its users to communicate anonymously on the Internet, said the problem with surveillance has to do in part with a “generational gap.
“There is a generation who believe that electronic devices, somehow, have a notion of the law of policy and of politics. This is incorrect and an electronic telephone switch for spying does not know that it is being ordered to spy by the Chinese, by a lawful Swedish court or by Ben Ali’s regime,” said Applebaum, who is also a spokesman for WikiLeaks.
“We are beginning to approach an understanding of surveillance the way we understand landmines, cluster bombs and chemical weapons, which is to say, well technologically, it is feasible, but on a planetary scale it is probably not desirable,” he added.
He added that surveillance programs, like dangerous weapons, must be banned.