Major US tech companies have joined together to urge the US government and the governments of other countries to limit internet-based spying on individuals and to promote new legal frameworks to resolve related international issues. The group is demanding “global government surveillance reform.”
The companies are Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, AOL and Twitter. Others will likely follow their lead and join the effort. The group drafted an open letter to President Obama and Congress and set forth principles that they would like to see guide policy development.
Here’s the bulk of the letter to the president and Congress:
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.
We urge the US 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.
This letter and the related principles are presented on a website ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com. The following is a paraphrase of the five principles the companies have laid out:
- Limit governments’ authority to collect users’ information
- Introduce more legal oversight and accountability to intelligence data collection
- Bring more transparency to government demands for information
- Permit international flow and transfer of information without interference
- Create international treaties and accords to resolve conflicts of laws involving data requests
This is an important and in some ways unprecedented effort by these companies to speak with a unified voice on the critical issue of rampant government spying. We can be cynical about their motives (“people won’t use networks they don’t trust”) but undoubtedly these companies are equally motivated by important democratic values.
By the same token it’s unlikely that any individual government will make significant changes without assurances that others are implementing similar reforms. It’s extremely unlikely that the Chinese and other autocratic regimes would implement any part of this, for example. That will make it less likely for the US to unilaterally embrace them.
However Western Europe could put significant pressure on the US. There is also an effort in Congress already underway to bring more legal oversight and outside restraint to the NSA’s efforts to obtain data and its ongoing consumer surveillance. The companies themselves are also trying to make it much harder for spy agencies to hack into their networks.