Brazil, Snowden & the net at Davos

Here at Davos, I just left a media conversation with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff at which I asked two questions relevant to the internet.

First, I asked under what circumstances she would consider granting asylum to Edward Snowden. She did not answer that question directly but said that the Brazilian government “has not been addressed” regarding an application for asylum, “therefore since I cannot possibly contemplate such a request you are working under a mistaken premise. The request was never formally submitted.” Interpret the subtleties of that as you may.

I also asked about controversial plans to require technology companies to store Brazilians’ data in Brazil, seeking her reaction to criticism that this will lead to a balkanized internet. She responded strictly in the context of criminal prosecution, saying that in an investigation into money laundering her justice department was denied access “precisely because it ran counter to the legislation of the country where the data was stored.”

“We cannot possibly accept that interference about data,” she continued. “It’s about our sovereignty…. We cannot find ourselves subject to the laws that prevail in third-party countries.” And then she added: “A compromise agreement is always possible.”

A few observations:

First, holding citizens’ data in Brazil makes it easier for the authorities to get data on those citizens for reasons good or bad.

Next, I’m surprised that she did not use this as an opportunity to continue her complaints about U.S. surveillance of Brazilian entities.

Instead, she put this as a matter of Brazilian sovereignty. That’s blunt but troubling. I’ve argued before that no nation should be able to claim sovereignty over the net.

If Brazil succeeds in imposing this data requirement, then it represents the further balkanization of the net. Brazil ends up with its own net, Iran does too, and so does China. The good-guy argument doesn’t wash for the architecture and precedent set by any good guy can be used by any bad guy.

Note also this week that Microsoft said it would honor customers’ requests to hold their data outside of the U.S. and the prying eyes of the NSA. At a practical level, it’s not hard to imagine that working for enterprise data; here at Davos,’s Marc Benioff said his company can show a client the building and the rack where its data is held. But for consumer services, it is hard to imagine how, say, Bing could store, say, your search history outside the U.S. but mine inside.

And apart from those practical considerations, other tech executives said yesterday at Davos that the U.S. FISA court can still require a technology company to hand over data that is under its control, no matter whether that data is held in the U.S. or abroad.

This is a show of shadow puppets but one that could have serious, injurious impact on the net.

Back to Rousseff: The media conversation was to be off the record but after it was over she said that everything she said could be used on the record.

An odd event, it was. Asked one question about the economy of Brazil, she filibustered for half an hour, sounding — in the observation of another journalist — like a Chinese party official outlining the newest five-year plan.