Tech giants unite against NSA

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The giants of the tech industry are uniting to wage a campaign for sweeping reforms to the National Security Agency.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, LinkedIn and AOL are setting aside their business rivalries to demand that Congress and President Obama scale back the government’s voracious surveillance.

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“[T]his summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide,” the companies wrote in an open letter to Obama and members of Congress, appearing in a national print ad Monday.

“The balance in 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. … It’s time for change.”

The companies are demanding reforms above and beyond legislation in front of Congress that would curb the NSA’s powers.

The companies outlined a set of principles that should guide surveillance reforms, including limits on the government’s access to data, increased oversight of surveillance programs and increased transparency from both the government agencies requesting data and receiving the requests.

Additionally, the companies said U.S. surveillance programs shouldn't keep American tech companies from operating internationally, including in countries that oppose U.S. access to their citizens’ data.

“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,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in a statement.

The campaign comes after months of leaks that have revealed, in ever-greater detail, efforts by the U.S. government to spy on Internet users and track their contacts.

Documents released by Edward Snowden show the government collects information about Americans’ phone calls and Internet communications, including by tapping into tech companies’ data streams.

Tech companies fear the revelations could put their entire business models at risk.

If users begin to get skittish about sharing information online, it could stop the booming business of Internet advertising dead in its tracks.

Speaking in D.C. earlier this year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said companies like Google and Facebook suffered a loss in user trust after the Snowden revelations.

“The trust metrics for all [tech companies] went down when Prism came out,” he said, referring to a surveillance program targeting users of nine major Internet companies.

The companies alluded to the threat in their call to arms on Monday.

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a statement.

“Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

The aggressive new campaign is a shift from the summer, when Silicon Valley giants downplayed the significance of the Snowden leaks.

"There's been spying for years, there's been surveillance for years, and so forth, I'm not going to pass judgment on that, it's the nature of our society," Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said at an event in New York in September.

But the companies began to change their tone as more details of the NSA’s surveillance emerged. The most explosive revelation, from their perspective, came in October with a report that the NSA has secretly mined Google and Yahoo’s data as it traveled between overseas servers.

Schmidt called the activity "really outrageous."

"The steps that the organization was willing to do without good judgment to pursue its mission and potentially violate people's privacy, it's not OK," Schmidt told The Wall Street Journal in November.

Since the revelations began in June, the companies have fought for the ability to tell their users what information the government has accessed.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and LinkedIn have all asked the court that authorizes foreign intelligence surveillance for the ability to publish information about the scope of requests for user data they receive.

The news reports of government surveillance made users think that companies hand over data much more frequently and readily than they do, the companies have argued.

The companies have also backed surveillance reforms being considered by Congress.

In October, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, AOL and LinkedIn announced their support for the USA Freedom Act.

The bill, introduced by Patriot Act author and NSA critic Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), would allow companies to be more transparent about requests for user data they receive, require the government to be more transparent about its collection of data and would end programs that collect data on Americans in bulk.

The tech coalition applauded the bill for its transparency and surveillance-limiting provisions. Now companies are throwing a few more proposals in to the mix.

In addition to limits on bulk collection and increased transparency and oversight measures, the companies outlined steps that would keep them competitive internationally.

Some countries are considering laws that would force Internet companies to locate their servers in a country if it processes data belonging to citizens of that country.

Additionally, the European Union is considering legislation that could prevent Europeans from using U.S. Internet companies if those companies comply with the U.S. government’s surveillance requests.

The tech companies said Monday that governments shouldn’t prevent their citizens from using foreign Internet services. Governments should also “work together to resolve the conflict” when countries have conflicting laws regarding access to user data, the tech giants said.

“We urge the U.S. 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,” they wrote.