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Communications of the ACM

Law and technology

Protecting the Global Internet from Technology Cold Wars

wall separates dancers in red and blue spaces, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

In the summer of 2020, the global Internet suffered two setbacks in quick succession. First, the Court of Justice of the European Union struck down the principal mechanism for personal-data transfers from Europe to the U.S.a Two weeks later, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. was banning TikTok, an app owned by a company headquartered in Beijing, China. Perhaps surprisingly, both of these actions shared a common justification: data flowing to a company with foreign ties might subject that data to foreign surveillance. Thus, not only is it unsafe to send data across the Atlantic, it is unsafe to send data across the Pacific. Call this the "dangerous waters" theory of the Internet.

Invocations of the dangerous waters theory are piling up. In March 2021, the Bavarian data protection authority banned the use of U.S.-based MailChimp because of the possibility of U.S. surveillance. The next month, Portugal's data protection authority similarly barred national census data from being sent to U.S.-based Cloud-flare. In May 2021, the European Data Protection Supervisor opened an inquiry into the public use of Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Office 365. Word, apparently, may be a weapon.


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