The Great Divide


Microsoft’s latest business move may present an incentive for other tech companies to follow suit, but this does not help clarify the messy legal issues surrounding it

On November 11th, Microsoft announced its partnership with German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom in an effort to protect its European customers from NSA cyber surveillance. By utilising data holding facilities located in Germany provided by Deutsche Telekom, Microsoft will be one of the first big US tech firms to make a significant move away from the grasp of the NSA. The partnership is also a sharp reaction to the legal frays involving the company and US authorities back at home. Though with Germany having some of the strictest laws protecting user data in Europe, this move will be a formidable contrast to the agenda in the US. Even if the decision reached by the legal case at home were to force the likes of Microsoft to hand over data to authorities and set this as the precedent for proceeding cases, the deal with Telekom will lay out a polarising precedent for other tech companies to fight that potential notion with.

It is likely then that the already existing tensions between European and American politicians over the issue of data protection will intensify. It has already got hot with the European Court of Justice’s decision to revoke the long standing Safe Harbour agreement, which has left many firms desperately looking for new legal structures to allow them to operate within European rules. However, by Microsoft engaging in this move, it encourages other tech companies to potentially do the same, increasing the complexity of the debate at hand.

Many of the tech companies of Silicon Valley have struggled to find ways to protect its customer data from the hands of the NSA, with the recognition that consumers value their privacy and would be more willing to use services which make effective efforts to provide just that. The difficulty remains even when companies set up data centres outside the US, as are still subject to the surveillance of the US government. Thus, by Microsoft delegating such operations to a foreign firm which is not American, access to data requires consent of the foreign firm itself rather than being able to easily access the data with domestic legal vindication. It may come at an extra cost for European customers, but even that may not be strong enough to deter users away from their desire for privacy.

Ultimately, this decision by the big tech firm gives others a valuable businesses opportunity to enhance its public image and eventually profitability, while for politicians and authorities it creates more headaches and conflicts. This is the one unintended consequence of the newly presented situation, since, on the political side of things, the laws and regulations which are meant to manage the realms of technology become increasingly irregular and antithetical. As a result, the varying legal frameworks used for issues such as data protection become almost futile. One of the main problems with the intersection of technology and the law is that there is an inconsistent approach to it not only between the private sector and the government, but also, as evident in this case, with different authorities. Though this move by Microsoft may provide a short-term fix to the problems the tech giant and others have been experiencing with the law and what they are obliged to do under the control of US regulation, it unfortunately spurs on the constant shifts in the debate of privacy and data protection. The complexion caused by contrasting standpoints does nothing to help to simplify the issue to enable and establish consistent laws with a strong consensus amongst all parties involved. Polarisation and deep divides go against what should be a consensual agenda, especially when many have come to the realisation that all the great technological innovations that have occurred have done so, mistakingly, without the anticipation of the long term potential effects on the law.

Within the fight between the private sector and governments, businesses see the issue of privacy as a chance to make a more attractive selling point, prying on the concerns of arguably unjustified government cyber espionage. For governments, the narrow minded focus on national security often results in the important principles which underpin society being neglected, and thus produce legislation which commits this very fallacy or fails to actually achieve greater security, which in turn . This is the case in the US and Britain, yet Europe is generally more privacy conscience than its counterparts, although this may change depending on the outcome of the Paris attacks and the consequential security fears. Still none of these approaches deserve any merit, because they are sharply and disruptively dissimilar. If there is to be a continuation of the technological advancements of which the world has greatly benefited from, then there needs to be a unified legal and political framework by which everyone should follow. Companies such as Microsoft operate globally, and so companies and legal authorities alike need to work harmoniously to reduce the friction which could stifle innovation in the future.

Therefore, it is imperative that this move by Microsoft does not create a problematic precedent for other tech companies to follow, but rather alerts lawmakers to attend to the turbulent contradictions existing in cyber law. It is misguided to simply think that privacy is only valuable to those who want to hide something, while at the same time excessive protections of privacy can unnecessarily weaken security; there needs to be a balance. Unification and harmony on an international front can clarify the rules of technology, but this starts with putting aside the overly paranoid and security-focused mindsets, along with the meticulous and excessive preservations of privacy. It will take more than just the negotiations of lawmakers and politicians; it will inevitably involve valuable input from businesses and other experts in the respective areas and will unavoidably take time. But what the world cannot afford is persisting deep divisions. Otherwise the many technologies which we have learnt to take for granted, may become frustratingly nugatory.