U.S. Internet giants sign open letter urging reform of U.S. government surveillance

The top eight American Internet companies today signed an open letter urging Congress and the Obama administration to reform government surveillance practices, calling for greater oversight and transparency and an end to bulk data collection.

“This summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in too 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 freedom we all cherish. It’s time for a change,” according to the letter signed by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo.

The Internet companies pushing for reforms in light of more disturbing disclosures about the government’s surreptitious surveillance programs by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

Since June, Snowden has exposed the NSA’s bulk collections of telephone metadata and Internet communications inside and outside of the United States; the wiretapping of phone calls of foreign leaders, most notably German Chancellor Angela Merkel; the daily collection of nearly 5 billion cellphone location data to track people’s whereabouts around the world; and the interception of customer data from private networks of U.S. Internet companies. These disclosures raise serious privacy and civil liberties questions about the NSA’s surveillance practices.

In response to the latest revelation that the NSA has secretly infiltrated private networks, companies such as Microsoft have announced measures to step up their data encryption efforts to better protect from unauthorized intrusions by the government as well as “pushing back on government requests” of customer data.

Furthermore, the Internet giants have put forth five specific proposals for reforming government surveillance:

1. Impose limits on the government’s authority to collect user information and put a stop to bulk data collection of Internet communications.

2. Strengthen checks and balances on intelligence agencies and increase oversight, particularly by the FISA court, on government data collection, and to disclose FISA court rulings in a timely manner to ensure accountability.

3. Allow companies to disclose the “number and nature” of government requests for user information.

4. Allow the free flow of information across borders and “not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.”

5. Create a “principled and transparent” international legal framework on government requests of user data to avoid conflicting laws.

Read more: Microsoft will expand encryption in response government ‘snooping’

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” wrote Brad Smith, General Counsel for Microsoft. “Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

Google’s General Counsel, Richard Salgado, testified last month before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law that the disclosures of the extent of NSA’s surveillance has undermined consumer trust and has “great potential for doing serious damage to the competitiveness” of American Internet companies.

Salgado cited anecdotal evidence that some businesses have become “nervous” about storing data in “clouds” – or virtual servers – because of the Snowden disclosures. (Google has been aggressively expanding its cloud storage offerings.)

“Customers who may be considering using the rich services in the cloud are nervous to do so now as a result of those disclosures. This means that companies – some of them abroad and some in the United States – may not be taking advantage of the efficiencies and security benefits and all the other advantages of the cloud as a result of this,” Salgado explained. “It’s very important that the users of our services understand that we are stewards of their data; we hold it responsibly; we treat it with respect. And that there’s not any sort of confusion around the rules where we may be compelled to disclose the data to the government, and when there are rules around that, that it’s clear what they are and the interaction between the government and Google and the other companies as well. This is essential to make sure that the users have confidence in their ability to place and trust their data with us.”

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