Madrid view: Data addicts


If ethics and politics are two different spheres, we have to think about how best to reconcile both spheres. The worst part of doing this is, in Michael Ignatieff’s words, not the effort involved, but the scanty payback it seems to produce. All we find is a series of evils, of which we are supposed to choose the lesser.

Starting from the fact that spying is bad, but necessary, we can make some distinctions. The easiest case is that of enemies, or potentially dangerous elements. Spying on them is more than justified, because they threaten us. The problem is that the American government seems to have gone overboard, and entered some very problematical areas.

One of these is espionage on friendly governments, which, especially in the case of heads of government (Dilma Rousseff, Angela Merkel, etc.) deteriorates reciprocal trust between leaders, something that is so important for reaching consensus at key moments. Spying on them makes it harder for the United States to achieve its diplomatic objectives. However, the problem is not just at the top, but also at lower levels. Europeans and Americans need their services to exchange data with fluidity, which requires a high degree of trust. For the European governments that responded to the United States’ request, and refused to allow Evo Morales’ plane to fly over their territory in the belief that whistleblower Edward Snowden was on board, the humiliation is all the greater.

The second area is espionage on foreign companies, a frequent practice that is damaging not only to individual companies, as they lose access to key markets and technologies, but also distorts the functioning of trade and - in the long run -  generates a sort of protectionism that may be prejudicial to the United States. At a time when a far-reaching US-EU trade and investment agreement is in the air, these practices might abort an initiative that would create employment on both sides of the Atlantic and have important geopolitical repercussions — showing to what extent the “old” West still has cards up its sleeve amid a dynamic of globalisation marked by the rise of Asia.

The third sphere the United States has entered with total impunity is that of the massive trawling of data pertaining to its citizens. Here too, the United States does not seem to realise to what extent this assault on privacy is directed against the global digital middle class, which has an ample capacity to exert pressure directly on governments and on communications sector companies (hardware or software manufacturers such as Microsoft and Apple). Rightly enough, Washington feels that it can brave the ire of European governments, which are too small and depend too much on the information it supplies to them. But if citizens perceive that their rights are being systematically violated and, at the same time, the companies perceive that their survival is in jeopardy, the governments will find themselves obliged to set up barriers to limit the capacity of the United States and its companies to ally themselves against all others.

Indeed, the US government itself may in part be the victim of a certain technological over-determination, their attack on world communications can be seen as a consequence of the mere existence of technological tools and may not be the direct result of a deliberate policy which would involve assessing risks and taking into account political consequences. In support of this hypothesis, there is one plausible argument: the fact that the embarrassment the United States is now suffering as a result of the isolated actions of individuals such as Chelsea Manning and Snowden is so great, and is making the United States so vulnerable, that it is now Washington itself which, in its own interest, sees it is now time to mend its ways and undertake some treatment for this harmful addiction to data.

The article first appeared in El Pais.

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