The tech giants of America are fed up with surveillance by the United States government and they are not going to take it anymore.
A group of some of the premier technology companies in the U.S. have issued a joint open letter to President Obama and Congress to limit the National Security Agency’s ability to spy on their users. AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo all have signed the letter, posted at a website called Reform Government Surveillance.com. The website bases its opinion on five principles and calls on federal legislators to comply.
“The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information. This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform and we urge the US government to lead the way,” Google CEO Larry Page said in a quote posted to the website.
Below are the five principles requested by the companies in order to protect both their users and their business models.
1. Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information
“Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.”
2. Oversight and Accountability
“Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances. Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process, and governments should allow important rulings of law to be made public in a timely manner so that the courts are accountable to an informed citizenry.”
3. Transparency About Government Demands
“Transparency is essential to a debate over governments’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers. Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information. In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly.”
4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information
“The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.”
5. Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments
“In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions, such as improved mutual legal assistance treaty — or “MLAT” — processes. Where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, it is incumbent upon governments to work together to resolve the conflict.”
The letter and Reform Government Surveillance website comes after companies like Microsoft and Google have made very public challenges to the U.S. government against its spying operations. Both companies have said that they want to be much more transparent about what type of information the U.S. government is requesting from them while also promising to fix their systems so it is much harder for the NSA to access their data.
The letter states:
We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.
For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure — deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.
The Obama administration has begun a review of the practices of the NSA and with the results due later this month. Not included in the letter to the government were some of the bigger technology companies that gather user information in the U.S., including Apple and the cable and cellular operators like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. The cable and cellular operators have much closer working relationships with the government and have long been known to share information requests from federal agencies.
The Reform Government Surveillance website comes without a hint of irony from the companies involved, all of which make it standard practice to aggregate data on their users for the purpose of selling advertisements.