After Europe, the « Snowden » revelations virus is now spreading to Asia. Like their European counterparts, Asian governments are discovering the extent of the digital surveillance put in place by the American NSA. When they meet in New Delhi on November 11, European and Asian foreign ministers cannot ignore Washington’s digital wake-up call. 

For once, the incoming annual Asia-Europe meeting (ASEM) ministerial conference can make a difference. Expected to convene in New Delhi, India, on November 11 and 12, foreign ministers of the 51 Asian and European countries involved in this forum created in 1996 may have a shared outrage to debate.

The subject of this diplomatic anger is the extensive digital spying network put in place by the United States and revealed by the now Moscow-based NSA leaker Edward Snowden. On October 24-25 in Brussels, the documents he released, proving that German Chancellor Angela Merkel's electronic communications were intercepted, dominated discussions at the European Union (EU) leaders’ summit. And now, it is Asia's turn to experience such a digital storm: China and South East Asian countries have loudly protested after new revelations about Washington's secret electronic data collection program in their part of the world.

When they meet in New Delhi, ASEM foreign ministers will have a choice. Either they remain officially silent on this common issue, to avoid reopening a delicate rift on privacy, security, and citizen's electronic rights between Asia and Europe, or they face the music and admit the blunt reality: in today's digital world, in the shadow of American Internet giant corporations, time has come to address, at both a bilateral and a multilateral level, the strategic question of Internet governance and data protection.

Interestingly, part of the preparatory work to such a crucial discussion has already been done. This subject of extensive US data interceptions and the current impossibility for countries to protect their digital sovereignty by and large dominated the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) held in Bali, Indonesia, 21-25 October. This coincidence is telling in itself: while European leaders in Brussels were feeling somewhat betrayed by the extent of the Obama administration’s spying apparatus, digital experts and stakeholders from around the globe were gathered in Indonesia's most famous resort island to exchange ideas on the best way to achieve a correct balance between digital freedom, digital sovereignty, and cyber security.

The IGF was never supposed to make decisions or to draft formal conclusions. But what came up out of dozens of panels in Bali was telling. Asia and Europe are now bumping into the very same digital wall. With immense quantities of Asian data being stored on US servers, and with hundreds of millions of Asian consumers hooked on Google, Apple, Yahoo !, or Microsoft, the East is equally threatened by the over-arching American digital empire. Most Asian « dragons » and « tigers » have no means of protecting the digital assets of their citizens and institutions; they shall take this diplomatic and economic digital wake-up call seriously. Data is not only a public and an individual asset to be protected; it is the oil of the digital business and the key to future profitability for thousands of companies and start-ups all over the East. No single country can be left to control it alone.

The similarities end there. If the ASEM meeting has the courage to address this issue, cultural differences will certainly surface. In Asia, the group often remains above the individual, and Asian states are still reluctant to modify their internal security acts. In addition, some countries may not want to reopen this freedom vs. security debate, especially at a time when wars on terrorism and religious fundamentalism continue to rage throughout South-East Asia.

Another difference is that Europeans and Asians have diverging commercial interests in this digital economy. In Asia, American Internet giants are either welcomed or kept at bay by openly protectionist legislation. The debate in this part of the world is not to replace or to emasculate Silicon Valley’s offspring, but to protect the huge regional digital market, and eventually to make lucrative commercial transpacific deals with the US mastodons. With thriving digital economies, countries like Singapore and Korea are already positioning themselves as competitive and safe destinations for data storage. Business comes first. Digital security breaches may be seen as acceptable collateral damage.

Soon after the ASEM ministerial conference in New Delhi, the International Telecommunication Union’s Telecom World  Conference will take place on November 20-23 in Bangkok, Thailand. Thousands of experts and key players in the digital world and regulating bodies (from governments to UN organizations) will again debate this global digital deadlock, even if very few stakeholders are in favor of seeing the ITU play a bigger role.

As the NSA ball continues to roll, ASEM countries have an opportunity to make their voices heard. The confrontational path taken initially by Brazil vis à vis the United States - though it advocated a more conciliatory approach during the IGF in Bali - demonstrates that a lot is at stake. For a forum too often in search of a meaning, the choice to remain silent would be a very wrong signal addressed to digital enterprises and citizens from Asia and Europe. END

An international correspondent for the Swiss daily Le Temps, Richard Werly is an associate fellow of the EU Centre in Singapore and DiploFoundation in Geneva. 

Opinions voiced by Global Minds do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Global Journal.