Internet Giants Demand Surveillance Reform
In their most concerted response yet to disclosures by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL have published an open letter to Barack Obama and Congress on Monday, throwing their weight behind radical reforms already proposed by Washington politicians.
“The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our constitution,” urges the letter signed by the eight US-based internet giants. “This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for change.”
Several of the companies claim the revelations have shaken public faith in the internet and blamed spy agencies for the resulting threat to their business interests. “People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”
The chief executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, said: “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world.”
Silicon Valley was initially sceptical of some allegations about NSA practices made by Snowden but as more documentary evidence hasemerged in the Guardian and other newspapers detailing the extent of western surveillance capabilities, its eight leading players – collectively valued at $1.4tn – have been stung into action amid fears of commercial damage.
“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens,” they say in the letter. “But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.”
A separate list of five “reform principles” signed by the normally fiercely competitive group echoes measures to rein in the NSA contained in bipartisan legislation proposed by the Democratic chair of the Senate judiciary committee, Patrick Leahy, and the Republican author of the Patriot Act, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner.
Crucially, Silicon Valley and these key reformers in Congress now agree the NSA should no longer be allowed to indiscriminately gather vast quantities of data from individuals it does not have cause to suspect of terrorism in order to detect patterns or in case it is needed in future.
“Governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of internet communications,” says the companies’ new list of principles.
They also argue that requests for companies to hand over individual data should be limited by new rules that balance the “need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the internet”.
This places them in direct conflict with Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who is sponsoring a rival bill that would enshrine the right of security agencies to collect bulk data.
Feinstein, who represents California, has been accused by critics of being a cheerleader for Washington’s intelligence committee but now faces opposition from her state’s largest industry.
The companies also repeat a previous demand that they should be allowed to disclose how often surveillance requests are made but this is the first time they have come together with such wide-ranging criticism of the underlying policy.
The industry’s lobbying power has been growing in Washington and could prove a tipping point in the congressional reform process, which has been delayed by the autumn budget deadlock but is likely to return as a central issue in the new year.
Read the rest at The Guardian