NSA torpedoed Internet liberty

Many people think of Edward Snowden as a traitor. Others see him as hero acting in the name of vigilante justice. The controversy generally swirls around the idea of patriotism: was Snowden a traitor or a misunderstood patriot? What commentators miss is the lack of patriotism demonstrated by our own National Security Agency.

Ultimately, the harm the NSA has caused to U.S. commerce and freedom of information transactions will be the most disastrous consequence of this whole affair. Snowden will have been but a bit player. The impact of existing revelations -- nevermind those to come -- are grave. Countries across the world now have an excuse to pull back the freedom of exchange that had made the internet such a powerful tool.

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The U.S. Constitution was drafted to formalize the loosely-organized states that comprised the newly formed United States of America so that they could pool resources to support a national navy. Unlike France and Britain, the U.S. was unable to protect merchant vessels in the Mediterranean against attack from the Barbary Pirates. And so, with a Constitution uniting the nascent nation, the U.S. Navy was born, and the Marines a short time later. For centuries their job has been to ensure freedom of navigation for U.S. vessels throughout the world. It was this freedom of movement during the mercantile age that helped America thrive.

The Internet was built for a similar, though metaphysical, manifestation of this freedom to navigate. The network we built helps data cross national boundaries, and the way we built it ensures that U.S. services and users are (more or less) guaranteed unhindered movement of information -- everywhere except in countries with the most oppressive of regimes. That will no longer be the case.

By ruthlessly tapping network connections, bypassing judicial process, providing zero transparency and, worst of all, hacking the internal networks of domestic internet companies like Google and Yahoo!, the United States Government gave up the moral high-ground. By doing so, we gave other developed countries an excuse to restrict the traffic and services of American businesses and users. Meanwhile, U.S. SaaS (software as a service) companies -- previously among the most successful in the world -- find themselves under threat as international rivals race to fill the void.

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The greatest fallout of Snowden’s revelation isn’t the violation of individual online privacy-- the focal point of most policy debate and activism--but the simple loss of our freedom to navigate the digital seas, and the unimpeded flow of information across national boundaries. No longer will we be welcome in every port and harbor.

It would be wrong of us, however, to simply lament the loss without trying to regain our foothold. A number of tech companies have entered a process that should have been started long ago: real dialogue with government. American businesses have started to advocate for “substantial reforms to the U.S. government’s surveillance program”, and in beginning to self-report, they are also forcing the government’s hand toward a more transparent understanding of how the non-judicial data requests are made, and how often.The USA Freedom Act, championed by both the House and Senate Judiciary Committee chairmen, is another small start towards preventing recurring abuses and creating better accountability within the government. We must push for these reforms as urgently as possible to restore free access and transaction.

Congress must also be careful not to let incumbent industries, long threatened by the power of the web, to use this as an opportunity to push their agenda. To-date, these conversations have been contained to closed-door White House and Congressional meetings, and have failed to affect change via the legislative process.

In addition to help from Congress, U.S. tech companies must carry the burden. We must secure networks, perform comprehensive audits, integrate advanced encryption regimes, and re-earn the trust of users. Importantly, we must also ensure that regulatory authorities and governments around the world understand that the internet has been a force for great social good. Our constitution serves as a reminder of the freedoms that solidified a young nation and helped us to become an influential player on the global stage; we must act now to ensure the continuance of these values despite the changing landscape of the digital age.

Mendelsohn is co-founder of Engine,a start-up advocacy organization.