on PRISM

The unfolding PRISM story is likely one of the biggest Internet/public policy stories of the decade, and the debates surrounding it could be a defining moment in the history of the Internet.

At its core, PRISM is about the erosion of constitutional rights in the US, and the invasion of privacy on a scale never seen before. Coming from China, I certainly had the chance to observe the negative consequences of a lack of safe-guarded constitutional rights; but suffice it to say, citizens of the US should take note, when one of their favorite Chinese activists writes a column on PRISM in The Guardian comparing the US to China.

On a secondary level, PRISM is also about antiquated laws in the Internet era. One of the major defenses the US government is trying to put up is that PRISM is not used to spy on US nationals (and aliens in the US). That may comply with longstanding US domestic laws, but it certainly does nothing to address the concerns of other nations. The EU is demanding answers, and Germans in particular are being reminded of the days of the Stasi. In light of this, will there be a wave of stricter regulations towards Internet companies globally? Would multi-national companies such as Google / Facebook face tougher compliance challenges in order to operate in local markets?

And certainly, this turn of events provides a lot of fuel to trade protectionism, in the sense that more nations will want national champions in the Internet and Telecoms space, so that they can be free of US surveillance. Some countries could theoretically follow China’s model and block out certain US Internet properties, in the name of failing to comply with domestic privacy laws.

Last but not least, PRISM is also a big topic for tech PR. The “9” firms identified in that notorious slide scrambled to issue denials, which have been duly dissected by media, and follow-up denials, as well as requests to the US gov to allow them to disclose more on the matter. But I suspect in any case these 9 companies are big losers from a PR perspective. I also found it ironic that Yahoo! wasted no time to use Tumblr to make statements, while Googlers turned to Google+ (the comments on these Google+ statements are not a bad measure of public sentiment towards Google). Twitter got a PR windfall for the mere fact that it wasn’t on the list. And Mozilla/Reddit (and a few other Internet companies) earned major PR points for taking action and demonstrated their authenticity to their brands – conspicuously missing are the big tech companies. And let’s not forget, the story is still unfolding, so we may well learn that the denials of the “9” are only semantics, so the worst may well be yet to come for those massive brands (well, Paltalk not withstanding).

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