Microsoft Calls For International Conference On Government Surveillance

online privacyLast week President Obama announced reforms to curb NSA domestic spying abuses. There was a range of reactions but many critics contend he didn’t go far enough. The proposed reforms also probably don’t help the tech industry very much.

Perhaps feeling let down or skeptical that the US reforms will change much Microsoft’s General Counsel Brad Smith is calling for an international conference on data privacy and government surveillance:

While there is no substitute for American leadership and action on these issues, the time has come for a broader international discussion. We need an international legal framework – an international convention – to create surveillance and data-access rules across borders.

He’s right. There should be an international framework in place to promote trust and confidence among citizens and prevent governments from abusing technology.

Many people have been outraged by the NSA’s actions. But many people equally seem indifferent. Complacency and passivity like this are very dangerous to democracy.

Collectively we should not tolerate the revealed abuses — even in the name of security. To do so or look the other way is to allow government and law enforcement to further encroach on US Constitutional rights (First Amendment, Fourth Amendment).

In this country legal battles are playing out regarding whether and when police need warrants to search technology or track users. In other countries technology is used as a tool of social control and suppression of dissent. It’s not hard to imagine that happening in the US if permitted by collective indifference.

For example the Ukrainian government is now using mobile phone location tracking to intimidate anti-government protestors:

People near the fighting between riot police and protesters received a text message shortly after midnight saying “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance” . . . 

The phrasing echoed language in a new law making participation in a protest deemed violent a crime punishable by imprisonment. The law took effect on Tuesday.

Imagine in the heyday of nefarious FBI director and domestic spymaster J. Edgar Hoover if this kind of tracking and surveillance had been available. It would have been used to thwart domestic protests, in the name of security, such as the Freedom Riders and the civil rights protests lead by Martin Luther King, Jr.

I hope that other tech giants echo Microsoft’s call for an international conference. Philosophically they’re already on board. It’s not only in their self-interests it’s in the broader public interest.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | Features & Analysis | Legal | Legal: PRISM | Legal: Privacy | Microsoft | Microsoft: Privacy

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. He writes a personal blog Screenwerk, about SoLoMo issues and connecting the dots between online and offline. He also posts at Internet2Go, which is focused on the mobile Internet. Follow him @gsterling.

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