NSA Prism: Why I'm boycotting US cloud tech - and you should too
'Not subject to American law' - the next desirable IT feature
Opinion So, America's National Security Agency has been tapping up US internet giants to gather information about foreigners online, allegedly sharing that data with Britain's GCHQ - and gobbling up details about US citizens' phone calls.
When I was a kid my world was full of pro-America propaganda; I never once questioned American exceptionalism and I cheered for the "good guys" in red, white and blue.
Somewhere along the way I became disillusioned with the US, but I'd always figured that a vague sense of unease and a few ethical qualms were as far as that disgruntlement would ever go.
After the past month's privacy scandal after privacy scandal and liberty scandal after liberty scandal involving the NSA and the American administration, I'm rapidly moving from being "uncomfortable hosting my data in a US-controlled cloud" to "feeling ethically bound to vote with my wallet in order to send a message".
While I do not believe in overarching conspiracies of evil, I do believe that the structure and format of the American political system has become so damaged that the corruption of some individuals in positions of power is inevitable.
Transparency is virtually non-existent, accountability laughable and at the end of the day people unworthy of the power and responsibility they obtain are repeatedly given absolute control over the lives of millions: let's not forget that the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act forces internet giants to share their users' data with government agents and forbids those companies from talking about it.
For all that I am frequently accused of being "anti-American" I hold the US Constitution up as one of the most sacred documents ever written by mankind. (The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights would be the item I consider to be the single most important document in our history as a species.)
The creation of the US Constitution was a symbol of a radically different way of thinking about our place in the world. Others had believed in the same ideals that were embedded in the Constitution long before the founding fathers, but none had ever made it stick. It was perhaps the most important turning point in the social evolution of our species since the development of agriculture.
The Constitution of the United States of America is not a declaration of rights and freedoms granted to its citizens by the government. That document is a declaration of the limitations of powers granted to the government by the people that allow said government to exist.
According to the founders of the US, rights are not something that natural persons are given; that which is given can be easily taken away. Rights are innate and inalienable. All human beings are born with them and they cannot be taken from us.
Governments and businesses, however, have no rights which the people do not grant them. Governments and businesses exist at the sufferance of natural persons only, or at least such was the original grand design. In the intervening years since that document's creation the US has got itself all turned around and gone back to an attitude that the people exist only at the sufferance of the government - and all in the name of "freedom".
Liberty versus freedom
Allow me to expand on my thoughts for a moment and pull up the preamble of the US Constitution: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America." (My emphasis.)
I have always maintained that there exists a distinction between "freedom" and "liberty", at least as words are used in the modern USA. Freedom has become closely tied to commerce and ultimately to property rights: freedom is wrapped up in the American psyche as a word tied to ownership of a home and the right to be king of one's own little castle.
More commonly (especially in politics) it is the right of an individual to form a company and set rules within his company however he chooses.
"Liberty" – a word very rarely used any more – seems to have largely retained its original meaning: the innate right of an individual to live life without interference. Liberty is the right to do, say, purchase, love, laugh, live, cry and whatever else they can think of as they see fit. This is the liberty of which the founding fathers spoke when writing the US Constitution. It is a word whose utterance – and certainly whose meaning – has all but vanished from modern American politics.
This distinction is relevant to today's privacy, political targeting and "war on journalism" scandals because of the power that the word "freedom" has over the American people. Americans are willing to die for this word because they have been conditioned all their lives to do so.
Somewhere along the way Americans - and frankly, I could argue this about the UK and a few other places as well - stopped asking if "freedom" still represents the belief we have all been raised to defend. Is the word as it is used by the politicians and corporations who wield so glibly truly still connected to our ideals?
The dichotomy of liberty and freedom illustrates how over time the populace can be - and has been - manipulated to support an ideology antithetical to those who defend it. The behaviour of nations changed simply by redefining a word through its real-world use.
While both concepts are used and abused with abandon, for the past thirty or so years, when liberty comes into conflict with freedom, freedom has won every time. How much that is a good or bad thing in your personal politics seems to depend entirely on whether or not you actually have any "freedom" to defend.
Those with more to lose are far more willing to reduce the liberty of all in the vain hope of defending their monetisable assets. This is perhaps an explanation for why so many have come to associate freedom with "security at all costs".
Nowhere is this more evident than in the words of politicians themselves. Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA) crystalises the viewpoint evidenced by those governing the US over the past few decades in just a few words: "To me, what makes us such as great country, is that we cherish freedom so much. But you can't have freedom without security. So you have to find the balance."
Some things are worth dying for
"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." – Benjamin Franklin
Canadians, for I am one, are viewed by the world as timid and meek. We cheekily disagree (usually via beer commercials) but our ancestors have bled and died fighting for what they believed in, the same as anyone else's.
Many of those brave men and women sacrificed themselves for a dream given form by the American founding fathers. We have our own history – and we're damned proud of it, thank you very much – but the truth of the matter is that the entire Western world owes the very foundation of its modern beliefs to the US Constitution, in my opinion.
Our place in the world, our relationship with our nation, the role of our government, military, law enforcement and intelligence services were informed by the belief in an inalienable personal liberty that said "governments are beholden to their people". Many of the laws of not only Canada but most of the Western world can be traced back to these beliefs.
The definition of words changes over time, but when our ancestors died with the word freedom on their lips they did not mean "protection of material property and security theatre". They meant "the liberty of individuals to live the lives they choose free of interference". Look across dozens of nations and you will see a history of people fighting and dying for that same liberty, thousands of years before pen was put to paper to immortalise it. Liberty – ours and those of our loved ones – is not only worth dying for, it may well be one of the only things that is.
When a country goes off the rails, why should we trust its computing systems?
"You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who says it." - Malcolm X
As the US has spent the past 30 years going completely off the rails we've spent that same time becoming absolutely addicted to the technology and services it produces. So deeply embedded are we that disentangling ourselves from American technology providers, cloud vendors and what-have-you is a process of years, even decades.
While undertaking this difficult, painful and expensive task may not be absolutely required for pragmatic business reasons, I argue that it is a moral and ethical obligation we collectively bear to defend that which we believe. We could simply remain apathetic and allow privacy to evaporate as our laws are synchronized with those of the US, but is that what we want to have occur?
No terrorist actions, war, trade sanctions, international politics or other traditional tools of revolution and statecraft will turn America around. Americans have so deeply forgotten the concept of "liberty" that they no longer speak of their freedoms as innate but rather as rights granted them by their government. They see themselves as helpless before an unstoppable and inscrutable juggernaut and their own belief in this makes it so.
America, her people having abdicated their duty of care, is a country entirely run by politicians and civil servants with no oversight except in pleasing donors, and no master but the almighty dollar. The only sound that those in charge are capable of hearing is that of a closing wallet.
Our addiction to US technology and services leaves us vulnerable to the whims of those who make the laws. For those of us from countries that still believe in the ideals our ancestors died for this is a problem. As business owners we have a duty of care to our customers and employees to treat their data and privacy with respect. We are still expected to defend their liberty as if it were our own.
We cannot lobby for change because the American lobby machine is so huge that it would take all of our nations combined to even make a dent; a political impossibility, if the European Union's influence is anything to go by. Instead, US industry has spent incomprehensible amounts of money lobbying our governments to seize our rights from us!
Abort, retry, fail?
"Never do anything against conscience even if the state demands it." - Albert Einstein
To effect change we are left with a boycott in everything but name. It means that non-US Western businesses need to start using "not subject to US law" as a marketing point. We need cloud providers and software vendors that don't have a US presence, no US data centers, no US employees - no legal attack surface in that nation of any kind. Perhaps most critical of all, we need a non-American credit-card company.
If enough of us start to pull our technology purchases out of the US they will indeed sit up and take notice; money leaving the country may well be one of the only things that will ever cause them to do so.
America still believes in its own manifest destiny; the problem is that it has lost its way and the very values it seeks to export to the rest of the world have become corrupt. I do not want the legal solution to the Western world's US privacy and liberty dichotomy to be the export of America's neo-Orwellian panopticon. (If you are Australian or Canadian you can download 1984 for a reminder here.)
We can no longer afford to allow apathy to direct our judgement. We must show our governments that we stand behind them; that we believe in privacy and personal liberty enough to invest only in privacy-bloc countries. Through our actions – which can be as simple as choosing which cloud vendor you use for e-mail – we need to give our nations a sense of international unity and the strength of will to stand up to American negotiators and say "hold, enough!"
The power to quite literally change the world rests not in the hands of the unknowable, inscrutable government suit that negotiates agreements in secrecy on your behalf. That power belongs to each and every one of us expressed through something as simple as where we choose to invest the money we spend. I believe it is our duty to choose wisely and to make those choices based on more than mere pragmatism.
If you know of any providers of internet services who have – deliberately or accidentally – created a business free of American legal encumbrances, please, leave a note in the comments. The ability to choose differently starts with knowledge and we might as well start building that list here. ®