In what is being widely seen as a very significant move, eight of America’s largest and most powerful technology companies have written an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress urging, ‘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’.
Although, as the linked-to ‘set of principles’ makes clear, there is a fair amount of ’enlightened self-interest’ behind the move, it is also clear that after a rather checkered relationship with the US government and the NSA, the companies (all of whom have cooperated with the NSA in the past), have decided make a stand on moral grounds in their call on the US government to enact reforms ‘consistent with established global norms of free expression and privacy and with the goals of ensuring that government law enforcement and intelligence efforts are rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent, and subject to oversight’.
This is great news, as it is only with cooperation of such influential industry leaders that a wide-ranging debate about internet surveillance, which will hopefully lead to reform, is likely to happen. The companies involved, and who are usually in cut-throat competition with each other, are Aol, Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo!
What is interesting are the companies absent from the list of signatories. Verizon, AT&T, Level 3 and other US telecoms companies who have been heavily implicated in handing over customer’s data to NSA are not on it, nor is Amazon, Cisco (whose business has been damaged by the Snowden revelations), eBay, or credit card companies such as Visa and American Express.
It is also interesting that while the tech giants’ demand ‘that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security’, the letter is addressed only to the US government. The UK government with its secret GHCQ spying organisation, for example, works in close cooperation with the NSA, and Prime Minister David Cameron’s has recently threatened the Guardian editor for the newspaper’s publishing in the public interest of Snowden’s documents It is a shame therefore that the set of demands does not have a more international focus, and are not also addressed to Mr Cameron.
Nevertheless, it is good to see the tech giants standing up for what is right, although the demands do also hint at ‘enlightened self-interest’ motives regarding the financial damage caused by international loss of trust in US technology companies, and of worry about balkanization of the internet, as countries such as Brazil and Germany look for ways to route traffic away from US servers.
‘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.’