Kashmir Hill reported here at the end of October, to taking their case to President Obama and members of Congress directly in anopen letter published today. At risk is the public’s trust in the internet itself and all of the economic and cultural benefits it contains.
The letter, signed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo, urges the U.S. to “take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.” Microsoft’s general counsel, Brad Smith, released a statement asserting that, “People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”
This is a striking development given the varying degree to which these same companies have cooperated and/or collaborated with the NSA’s data collection efforts. Clearly the balance has tipped and America’s tech companies now feel emboldened to call for sweeping reforms even as the Democratic chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Dianne Feinstein of California, is sponsoring a bill maintain the security agencies’ right to continue to collect bulk data.
The Big-8, with a combined valuation of $1.4 trillion, are trying to convince their billions of users worldwide that they can still trust American tech companies. “For our part,” the open letter reads, “we are focused on keeping user’s 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.”
Google, Twitter, Yahoo and Microsoft have all beefed up their internal encryption systems. ”The security of users’ data is critical,” says Google CEO Larry Page, “which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information.”
This may all sound political, but as with most things coming out of Silicon Valley (and Redmond), it is primarily economically motivated. America’s leadership role in consumer-facing internet technology is clearly at risk, as are the benefits of true global connectivity for businesses and individuals. As governments around the world have expressed their displeasure with the Snowden revelations, a thicket of international regulation threatens to choke the global growth of the Internet giants. The Guardian explains that “The eight technology companies also hint at new fears, particularly that competing national responses to the Snowden revelations will not only damage their commercial interests but also lead to a balkanization of the web as governments try to prevent internet companies from escaping overseas.”
The Guardian’s role, particularly, in providing journalistic support for Snowden’s leaked material (more of which is still to come) has made it hard for American tech companies to deny the extent to which their own infrastructure has been compromised and repurposed for the cause of state surveillance. These companies have a mixed track record in terms of their relationship with the NSA, but most have expressed outright anger (and in some case expletives!) as these revelations have rolled out about the degree of their infiltration.
How will Obama and Congress respond? That depends on how the story plays in D.C. The real story here is that the security risk of terrorism to America is considerably less than the economic risk of losing the global primacy of our tech companies. But to really make that case, the tech companies will have to admit that they have not yet created the kind of broad-based economic benefits that would justify such special status. Government surveillance is not the only reason that the populace might be mistrustful of the internet. Much of the blame should go to the tech companies themselves who have centralized the collection of data within their servers—for arcane commercial purposes—where it could be bulk collected by the NSA in the first place.
Did you know…?
America’s biggest tech companies have gone from begging congress for surveillance reform.