Screenshot of BRICS cable network map, via
After discovering that the US government has been invading the privacy of not just Americans, but also Brazilians, Brazil is showing its teeth. The country responded to the spying revelations by declaring it'll just have to create its own internet, and slap a big sign on it that says "United States Not Welcome."
At least, that's the version of the story that's been making the rounds. In reality, although Brazil President Dilma Rousseff is none too happy with the NSA’s sketchy surveillance practices, Brazil and other up-and-coming economies have been pushing to shift the power dynamics of the World Wide Web away from a US-centric model for years.
With a new light shining on those efforts, it’s a good time to ask: Is it possible? Plausible? And if so, how will it work?
The prevailing opinion among experts is that those answers are yes, no, and it's complicated. The debate about whether you can build an independent, compartmentalized network has been overshadowed by the debate over whether you should. Would it cause a doomsday Balkanization effect that undermines the global connectivity of the open web, or level the economic playing field for developing nations in the information age?
Brazil’s after the latter, with the added goal of shielding its citizens from the Orwellian feds, of course. To that end, the country’s laid out a multi-point plan to sever ties with a US-controlled cyberspace:
- Open datacenters in Brazil that will be subject to the country's privacy laws
- Take data out of the cloud and store it locally in these centers
- Pass legislation forcing the Googles and Facebooks of the net to store any data that originates in Brazil in Brazil, plus delete all data once a user account is closed
- Complete the ongoing development of the BRICS cable—an undersea broadband network that will connect the so-called BRICS emerging economic nations: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.
At first blush Brazil’s plan seems to fall somewhere between audacious and pipe dream, but experts say the idea is on the right track. “I don't think there's anything about the internet that requires routing to be as centralized as it has been,” Seth Schoen, senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation told me. “Today communications between foreign countries often pass through the US, but there's no reason this will have to be as common in the future as it has been."
Take the BRICS cable. The project was started before Edward Snowden's rankling leaks, by a South African entrepreneurial company looking to improve global coverage (the cable provides direct access to 21 African countries) and help boost developing nations' social and economic standing. The alternative network consists of 34,000 kilometers of undersea fiber optic cables and will reach about 45 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of its GDP. It's slated to be up and running by 2015.
The trouble is, there's no guaranteeing which route internet users’ information is going to flow, as Al Jazeera America pointed out in an editorial. Who’s to say Brazilian data packets will opt for the new infrastructure, instead of traveling right through a fast US connection point?
“The internet doesn't have what is called 'source routing',” said Joss Wright, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute. “That means that you can't say where you want your traffic to go. You just send information with a destination, and the internet conspires to work out how to get that message there.”
What's more, even if you can manage to control where the data moves through the web, you also have to control where it ends up. The physical location of the network infrastructure may skirt around North America, but chances are users are patronizing all sorts of core web companies and services based in the US.
To really upset US cyber-dominance, users might have to condemn themselves to a life without Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Apple.
To really upset US cyber-dominance, users might have to condemn themselves to a life without Google, Facebook, Twitter, or Apple. You’d need to create not just a new network, but new services that guarantee all data stays in the local, independent internet. That’s what the Rousseff's proposing, but convincing people to ditch Gmail for a secure email service provided by the Brazilian postal service is no small task—even if those services are offered for free or dirt cheap.
There's also the question of whether the corporate web behemoths will agree to comply with new legal demands about where they put their data, even if those laws are coming from a country with as big a marketplace and potential for web growth as Brazil.
Even if companies agree not to store Brazilian data on their servers, and locals forgo the convenience of legacy web services, and the data travels exclusively over an alternative infrastructure like the BRICS cable, total privacy still isn’t possible, because people have friends and relatives all over the world.
If, say, you email an American with a Gmail account from a secure service in Brazil, or comment on a Brit's status update, Google and Facebook—and thus, likely the NSA—can still “see” those interactions. “There's really no way to fix this entirely for legacy services,” said Schoen. “If I want to send postcards to people in France with a strong guarantee that the French government can't read my postcards, I'm probably out of luck.”
None of this to say it's not possible, or worth trying, to move toward a less US-centric internet, especially in post-PRISM fever. Progress has already been made migrating some control away from the US stronghold. “The internet's strength was initially its decentralization, and I think that moving back in that direction, which will involve sacrificing some convenience, would be best,” said Wright.
Nor is Brazil the only one trying: The United Nations, with many countries backing the move, has lobbied for years for an international body, be it the UN or a group of multiple stakeholders, to take over the reins—and with some success.
For her part, President Rousseff is set to speak at the UN’s General Assembly later this month, where she could take this moment of high temperatures to corral other nations to follow Brazil’s lead.