Call for curbs on
Documents revealed by Edward Snowden threaten the business interest of internet giants calling for reform.
SOME OF THE biggest players on the internet launched a massive public relations campaign Monday calling for new limits on government surveillance.
The appeal comes after months of damaging disclosures based on documents released by Edward Snowden that have shaken faith in online privacy worldwide.
But it must be seen in the context of the commercial damage the revelations have caused. The companies are acting in their own self-interest: they risk losing millions of customers and billions of dollars if they are seen as vulnerable to unauthorized government snooping.
The companies’ appeal for reform is hardly in the public interest. It is a transparent attempt to defend their business models.
THE HIGHLY publicized appeal comes after some countries and the European Union are already taking steps to re-route traffic from U.S.-based services.
The direct threat to Google and Yahoo (and who knows which other services) was first reported in a Washington Post blockbuster in later October, which we noted in Google, Yahoo data caught in dragnet
The Post reported that the NSA was secretly intercepting the traffic of the two without authorization.
The companies’ appeal for reform was reported in The Guardian in the U.K. in the story Twitter, Facebook and more demand sweeping changes to US surveillance laws
The front page of The Guardian web site on Monday showing the two stories: the appeal for reform and new disclosures about government infiltration of online games.
“The world’s leading technology companies have united to demand sweeping changes to US surveillance laws, urging an international ban on bulk collection of data to help preserve the public’s “trust in the internet,” wrote Dan Roberts.
“In their most concerted response yet to disclosures by the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL have published an open letter to Barack Obama and Congress on Monday, throwing their weight behind radical reforms already proposed by Washington politicians.”
Roberts summarized the motivation behind the campaign in no uncertain terms:
“Several of the companies claim the revelations have shaken public faith in the internet and blamed spy agencies for the resulting threat to their business interests.”
But he goes on to point out that the response came slowly and somewhat grudgingly.
“Silicon Valley was initially sceptical of some allegations about NSA practices made by Snowden but as more documentary evidence has emerged in the Guardian and other newspapers detailing the extent of western surveillance capabilities, its eight leading players – collectively valued at $1.4 trillion – have been stung into action amid fears of commercial damage.”
Details of the public appeal can be found at the web site Global Government Surveillance Reform.
“The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information,” the site says.
The web site where the appeal for surveillance reform was published. It also appeared in print in The New York Times.
Below are the logos of AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
“While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed.”
The timing of the public appeal, however, is ironic in that it was launched on the same day further reporting based on the Snowden documents revealed a threat to another huge commercial venture – online gaming.
The was reported in The New York Times in the story Spies’ Dragnet Reaches a Playing Field of Elves and Trolls.
Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott wrote:
“Not limiting their activities to the earthly realm, American and British spies have infiltrated the fantasy worlds of World of Warcraft and Second Life, conducting surveillance and scooping up data in the online games played by millions of people across the globe, according to newly disclosed classified documents.
“The spies have created make-believe characters to snoop and to try to recruit informers, while also collecting data and contents of communications between players, according to the documents, disclosed by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden.”
But, interestingly, another massive company affected by the revelations, AT&T, was notably absent from the call for reform.
In fact, it made its position clear just last week, as reported in the story AT&T Responds to Shareholders’ Concerns on User Data.
“In November, shareholders of AT&T and Verizon Communications sent resolutions to the two companies demanding that they publish regular reports on how they share customer information with the government for surveillance efforts,” wrote Brian X. Chen in The New York Times.
“Now AT&T has issued a response: It’s none of your business.”
In a filing with the government, the firm declined to put the matter to a vote of shareholders.
One might be tempted to admire the call for reform by the biggest online media companies in the world.
If it were truly motivated by a genuine desire to protect online privacy and the public interest, it might be admirable.
But it is so transparently a move to protect corporate profits that only the most naïve would not see it as such.
Indeed, it is a rare case in which corporate interests and the public interest intersect. Both would be well served by stricter government oversight of the spying agencies and reform in privacy laws.
But the corporate appeal should be seen for what it is: an attempt to get the companies on the right side of an issue that poses an existential threat to them. It’s not a pretty picture.
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