The last few weeks and the Edward Snowden affair have been fascinating. When was the last time one person seemed able to cause such division and debate around the world? Oh hang on, it was Julian Assange wasn’t it … a man who is clearly deeply involved in the current situation.
I am told that on the first day as either a member of staff or the “stage” in the Commission, that everyone is told that Brussels is the second highest city in the world for spying and espionage. Doubtless most people forget this a few minutes later. I bet they weren’t expecting their internal computer system to be the target though…
What is interesting is the ironic own goal. We have all heard members of the US government, including multiple Presidents, use words like, “national security” and “strategic interests”. Those strategic interests are almost always related to trade and business. Yet as the scandal continues to unfold day by day, the EU-US trade negotiations seem to be having a wobble before they start, Ecuador is clearly unfazed by the prospect of it’s own trade deal being heavily revised and John Kerry is apparently wielding the big stick of trade to force other countries to do his bidding.
On top of that, there seems to be a growing swell of countries and politicians that are unhappy about the size and scale of PRISM and willing to speak out about it.
Land of the free…?
Freedom of speech…?
Defender of human rights…?
I could go on.
While it seems that explaining that Americans are protected by law took the heat off the issue in America, it did very little to assuage the rest of us. Now that those statements seem to have been publicly contradicted, one wonders why the American people are not up in arms. A quick glance at the latest news from Egypt shows what democracy really means to people.
Not so long ago, a phrase often used around the corridors of Brussels was “soft power”. First coined by Joseph Nye in his 2008 book, “The Powers to Lead”, Nye suggested that it was important to understand, “the soft power of attraction as well as the hard power of coercion“.
President Barroso and many others were proud that the EU could be an inspiration and provide ideas worth following. Then the eurozone crisis really started to bite and Europe didn’t look quite so inspirational any more. In many ways it still doesn’t.
However, the level of outrage being displayed by many of Europe’s highest level of politicians suggests that the NSA and / or CIA has crossed a line of unacceptability. It seems reasonable to presume that if these politicians really are outraged that their own institutions are not crossing those same lines. (It would be a humiliating thing to have to own up to later, wouldn’t it? Akin to Director James Clapper having to admit to saying something clearly erroneus).
Suddenly, the United States looks quite a bit less like the defender of democracy and a bit more like a global bully. In contrast, the EU looks quite a bit more like a defender of normal people and the type of values that most of us hold dear.
Perhaps this could be the start of a renaissance in the soft power of the EU?
Some minimal background reading suggests that the EU has the toughest legislation in the world relating to digital privacy, though enforcement differs widely from member to member. Now that so much abuse has been, and continues to be, exposed, it is up to the EU to defend those laws and it’s people and make clear what is and is not acceptable.
Since most of the highest traffic websites and cloud services in the world are located in the US, this is a matter of importance for all of us. Whether this will be the spark that ushers in a new era of internet privacy and services located in countries like Sweden, Denmark and Iceland where data privacy is much stronger, only time can tell. If it is, then this is an opportunity for European tech entrepreneurs as well as European politicians.