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.
Representatives of the British government — its intelligence agency, no less — asked that the newspaper destroy the copies of the Snowden files it had on-hand. The country's former foreign secretary and current MP Malcolm Rifkind applauded that rationale to The Guardian.
"I think Mr. Rusbridger, in the article he wrote about the destruction of his hard disks, is on relatively weak ground. He clearly did not dispute that he had no legal right to possess the files or the documents. The question was whether he handed them back to the government or whether they were destroyed. He chose the latter option."
The conflation of the existence of a digital file with possession of stolen property is a persistent anachronism in the law, of course. Here, the UK is the recording industry; the Snowden documents, some MP3 files. But there's no way to consider that statement, and the action itself, than as a deep misunderstanding of the nature of the threat that the United Kingdom faces. In fact, its demand that The Guardian erase files from its computers in London (much less watching as they smashed the hard drives) feels nothing more than symbolic — an attempt by the former empire to exert physical dominance against a virtual threat it can't control.
The difference between the MP3 example and the one at hand is that The Guardian isn't a teenaged kid who wants to listen to the new Kendrick Lamar track — it's a media entity. It has been given files that the United States and British governments would rather it not have, but it has them. And unlike the Pentagon Papers — assiduously photocopied by Daniel Ellsberg to be transmitted to The New York Times — the files can be duplicated millions of times in a short period and sent across the globe. Had Nixon sent CIA agents to The New York Times to watch as the photocopied report on the Vietnam War was burned would have made more sense than having The Guardian destroy its hard drives. But the core issue is the same: a crucial component of a functioning democracy is the ability to an independent media to report on what the government is doing. That's what the UK is trying to block, using whatever strong arms it has laying around.
In its 2013 index of press freedom around the world, Reporters Without Borders placed the United Kingdom in 29th place — three spots above the United States. (The full map of countries' scores is below; lower scores are better.) How each country fares next year will be interesting to observe.