It was British Prime Minister David Cameron who ordered government officials to confront The Guardian on its reporting of the leaks from Edward Snowden, a revelation that reinforces the power imbalance between the Internet and individual nations.
At the center of the attempt to halt the paper's reporting was Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood, the nation's most senior civil servant, who works directly for the prime minister, Reuters and The Guardian report. A spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg described the rationale to The Guardian.
"We understand the concerns about recent events, particularly around issues of freedom of the press and civil liberties. The independent reviewer of terrorism legislation is already looking into the circumstances around the detention of David Miranda and we will wait to see his findings.
"On the specific issue of records held by The Guardian, the deputy prime minister thought it was reasonable for the cabinet secretary to request that The Guardian destroyed data that would represent a serious threat to national security if it was to fall into the wrong hands."
This, of course, is a silly reaction, as we outlined yesterday. The United Kingdom has no more control over the disparate components of the Internet than it does over smuggling operations in the Ivory Coast. Which is to say that it can exercise some measure of control, with great effort — but temporarily and probably ineffectively over the long run.
The broader coincidence is that the leaks themselves dealt with the American government's attempts to corral the virtual world. The NSA surveils 75 percent of American web traffic; it would like very much to surveil it all. But as the The Washington Post noted on Tuesday, its able to have as broad a reach largely because so much of the world's web traffic moves through American servers. The Internet is an American invention. Until 2009, America controlled the organization that manages the Internet's name spaces. American companies — Google/YouTube, Facebook, etc. — are responsible for huge percentages of what people around the world do online. And yet the American government is as powerless as the British to halt the spread of reports about its behavior and the documents that lead to those reports.