Internet firms may
change terms of
Edward Snowden’s revelations have sparked a global debate, now engaged by giant tech firms.
Just a year after the revelations from Edward Snowden began, a subtle but significant transformation has started in the quest they have spawned for more privacy.
It has become a big deal for big business.
A coalition of the largest names in tech has engaged in a high profile way in the battle against government surveillance. It was highlighted this week in full-page ads, at the website Reform Government Surveillance and in a front page story in The New York Times.
What’s remarkable is the acknowledgement that the status quo does indeed pose a threat to their customers and their business models.
This may represent a turning point in the global debate sparked by the continuing revelations.
This is not the first time the nine firms including Microsoft, Google and Facebook have entered the public debate over surveillance.
We reported on their previous effort in December Internet giants launch offensive defense.
The Reform Government Surveillance web site of nine giant tech firms. Click image to enlarge.
The first intervention came after a direct threat to Google and Yahoo (and who knows which other services) was first reported in a Washington Post blockbuster in late October, which we noted in Google, Yahoo data caught in dragnet
In Thursday’s ad, the companies state: “Confidence in the internet … has been badly damaged over the past year. It is time for action.”
The comment is contained in an open letter to Senators as debate on the USA Freedom Act began in the Senate Intelligence Committee.
In its first day, the bill was criticized from both sides as being inadequate in protecting privacy and national security.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported in Friday’s editions that the tech giants were taking unilateral measures to make surveillance more difficult and more expensive.
In the story Internet Giants Erect Barriers to Spy Agencies it notes:
“A year after Mr. Snowden’s revelations, the era of quiet cooperation is over. Telecommunications companies say they are denying requests to volunteer data not covered by existing law.
“… the immediate goal now is to thwart Washington — as well as Beijing and Moscow.”
The New York Time story on how tech firms are making surveillance more difficult and more expensive. Click image to enlarge.
The nine signatories to the open letter were not alone in assailing the restrictions approved by the House as too timid. But their open letter went further than before: “… it is critical to our customers that the bill allow companies to provide even greater detail” than allowed in the current version of the bill, the letter said.
If, as might be intended, this open letter reframes at least part of the debate as a business issue, it may yet gain some serious traction.
Part of the reason the current attempt at reform has been so watered down is that the intelligence community has framed the argument in national security terms.
No self-aware politician of any stripe wants to be labeled “soft” on terrorism. It’s any easy sell, not made any more difficult by the acquiescence of the Obama administration.
But, if it is viewed as a brewing disaster for some of America’s biggest tech firms, the political classes – especially the GOP (aka the party of big business) – might find the cover they need to do more than mere window dressing.
“We urge you to ensure that U.S. surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent, and subject to independent oversight,” say Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple and the seven other signatories.
This is a welcome and overdue development.
It has the potential to be a game changer.
If they continue to flex their muscles in the current showdown, it will be fascinating to watch the members of Congress squirm.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, it is time for them to really ratchet up the pressure.
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