Eight tech giants unite to pressure the US Government to stop systematic spying
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After months of apparently indignant inertia, eight of the world’s largest technology companies have taken something approaching action in response to the wholesale surveillance of the internet by the US and UK security services.
Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, LinkedIn, Twitter and AOL are today publishing an open letter to President Obama and Congress demanding radical changes to governmental behaviour. Their key focus is the fundamental undermining of trust in cyberspace and the collapse in confidence that has resulted from Edward Snowden’s revelations of systematic monitoring.
The internet was born into idealism. Its’ open source architecture opened up new paradigms of progress, dissolving both geographical limitation and monolithic control structures. For years it existed in a parallel universe to traditional state power, until those powers adapted to the new technological dynamics. And they have certainly adapted successfully, with the NSA and its’ satrap security outfit GCHQ effectively corrupting the network at its major gateways. Many of the internet giants in question were founded on a post 1960’s philosophy of progressiveness, and as their bottom line looks potentially threatened by an exodus to more secure bases of online operations, they seem to have remembered something of themselves. Or maybe that’s being charitable. Maybe this is all a cynical damage limitation exercise.
“The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our constitution,” says the letter. “This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for change.”
“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said: “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world."
“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens,” says the letter. “But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.”
The companies go on to outline five reform principles that would end the mass gathering of data and impose tighter controls on the circumstances in which individual data is handed over to security agencies. This chimes with efforts by Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy, and the Republican responsible for the Patriot Act, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner to draft bipartisan legislation in Congress. With energy firms and agricultural bodies well aware of their lobbying muscle, perhaps the technology industry is finally realising that they carry weight too and can actively help shape policy.
“For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure, deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorised surveillance on our networks, and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope,” the letter continues
“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.”
And yet despite this promising assertion by the major internet firms, it is important to note who is not a signatory to the letter. As Jeff Jarvis points out in The Guardian, who have been instrumental in informing the public about the activity of the security services
"I see no telecom company there — Verizon, AT&T, Level 3, the companies allegedly in a position to hand over our communications data and enable governments to tap straight into internet traffic. Where is Amazon, another leader in the cloud whose founder, Jeff Bezos, now owns the Washington Post? Where are Cisco and other companies whose equipment is used to connect the net and by some governments to disconnect it? Where are the finance companies — eBay, Visa, American Express — that also know much about what we do?"
But it is definitely a start.