Eight giants of the Internet world, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Aol, LinkedIn, Twitter and Yahoo have joined forces to line up and call for government reform. Primarily addressing Barack Obama, they have all signed an open letter to demand greater transparency about user data collection by surveillance. They feel this is a global dilemma, affecting many countries and seriously denting Internet users’ trust.
This unique coalition of the most powerful Internet companies all say that the balance has tipped away from the rights of the individual and towards the state. They acknowledge the need for the protection of citizens, but they all think it has gone too far. They are calling themselves the Reform Government Surveillance Group.
“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. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”
The group collectively reached this conclusion after “this summer’s revelations” by Edward Snowden regarding leaked documents, exposing the extent of spying by both US and UK secret services on their own people.
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, said the Snowden reports have shown, “there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits to how governments collect information.” He challenges the Obama administration to lead the way in effecting these reforms.
Of course, these eight firms have more than moral principles at stake. They have their commercial interests to worry about. If too many users get to a point where they have no confidence their data may not be secure, they could stop relying on the Internet. Melissa Mayer, who leads Yahoo, said the users’ trust has been shaken and, “it is time for the US government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world.” The flow of data across borders is essential to the entire global economy.
Mayer joined the tech industry chorus to call for a change in surveillance laws. Transparency and accountability were the key areas that need to be addressed.
Those who work in intelligence have counter-argued that the espionage techniques have helped to deter terrorist attack. NSA also maintain that they do not regularly read the emails of ordinary citizens.
This is not enough, say the tech giants. They want “sensible limitations” on the data-collecting ability of government snoops. The letter has been greeted with cautious regard by groups who have already been campaigning for change. The American Civil Liberties Union spokesperson, Chris Soghoian, said it would have “been nice” if the companies had spoken out before Snowden’s disclosures. WikiLeaks was also slightly cynical, suggesting via a tweet the tech giants had been previously complicit, but have now seen a threat to their profits.
The largest tech giants have all said they were not stooges. They have all been obliged to hand over data “relating to national security” in compliance with the US authorities, but restricted from telling how many requests this has involved. Snowden’s documents showed the scope of the operations. They included the collection of phone records, the tapping of fiber-optic cables, and hacking into various networks. Larry Page, Google’s CEO, said such “wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight” was occurring in many governments across the globe.
BBC Technology correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, predicts that the scene is now set for “continuing conflict between the spies and Silicon Valley” over who controls the Internet.
The big eight are all determined to strengthen their encryption but as Brad Smith, the signatory for Microsoft, says in the letter, “People won’t use technology they can’t trust.” The five specific reforms that are called for are: better oversight and accountability from the intelligence agencies, a limit on the ability of governments to access and gain user data, greater transparency, respect for the necessity of free flow of data and avoidance of conflict in so doing. This latter point will require a mutual legal assistance treaty, or MLAT, so where legal systems do conflict, governments will have to work together to resolve that.
The fact that the Internet behemoths, normally fierce rivals, have combined to ask for reform from the governments of the world, shows just how big a battle this may turn out to be.
By Kate Henderson
The Washington Post