David Cameron Can't Control the Internet

The British prime minister pledged to ban encryption in the name of security. But it's not so easy for world leaders to change the Web's rules just for their own countries.

David Cameron has a radical idea to improve the security of the UK: Ban Internet encryption.

"It has been possible to read someone's letter, to listen to someone's call," Cameron said in a speech Monday. "Are we going to allow a means of communications where it simply is not possible to do that?"

Cameron has pledged that if his party is reelected in May, Parliament would essentially outlaw any application that doesn't allow for government spying, like the encrypted messaging services Snapchat and WhatsApp. These platforms are appealing for just the reason Cameron wants them banned. In an era of mass surveillance, it's nice to know a private communication is just that: private.

The idea of world leaders wanting to change the rules of the Internet within their own countries is fraught with complications. The architecture of the Internet is not in a single place, governed by a single set of laws. Cameron's proposal is the mirror image of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff's plan. In the wake of the 2013 NSA leaks, fearing that her country's citizens could be spied on using sites like Yahoo and Facebook, Rousseff wanted Brazil's Internet to bypass the U.S. Unlike Cameron, who wants to keep back channels open, Rousseff wanted to seal them shut. But the effect would be similar. Limiting international Internet would isolate a country, and hinder trade in the global Internet economy.

At an event in October, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt warned that if countries prune the Internet into walled-off gardens, the whole Web will become untenable. "The simplest outcome is that we're going to end up breaking the Internet," Schmidt said. "Because what's going to happen is, governments will do bad laws of one kind or another, and they are eventually going to say, 'We want our own Internet in our country because we want it to work our way, right?'"

Writing in BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow contends that Cameron's proposal would fundamentally make the Web less secure in Britain—ironic, considering Cameron is traveling to the U.S. Thursday to discuss cybersecurity issues, among other topics. "Criminals will eventually discover this vulnerability," Doctorow writes. "They—and not just the security services—will be able to use it to intercept all of our communications." On top of that, he contends, is the hurdle of preventing Britons from downloading apps from international developers that do not have to follow British law. "The regime [Cameron] proposes is already in place in countries like Syria, Russia, and Iran," he writes.