Tech giants ask Obama to lift gag order on surveillance requests

Google, Yahoo, Facebook and other major tech companies joined with civil liberties and trade groups on Thursday to call for the United States government to let companies publish more information about the national security-related requests they receive for user information. 

The diverse coalition of 63 groups — which includes Twitter, Apple, Reddit, American Civil Liberties Union and investors like Union Square Ventures — said companies should be able regularly report figures on the number of government requests they receive for user data under the surveillance laws used to operate two controversial National Security Agency programs and other national security authorities. 

The groups issued the call in a letter sent Thursday to President Obama, top intelligence officials and congressional leaders. 

To further increase transparency, the coalition said companies should also be able to regularly update consumers on the number of individual accounts or devices that were targeted in the national security requests they've received, as well as the number of requests that asked for "communications content" or subscriber information. 

"This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use, and to international users of US-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications," the letter states.

But they also argue that the responsibility to report these figures isn't one-sided and the government also needs to play a role. The government should publish its own transparency report that includes the similar figures as the ones published by industry, the groups add.

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To this end, they say Congress should pass legislation that requires the government to publish its own transparency report. Lawmakers should also pass legislation that allows companies to publish figures related to national security requests without having to get permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or government first, they added.

"Just as the United States has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable and respectful of civil liberties and human rights," the groups write in the letter.

Notably, major telecommunications providers were missing from the list of companies that signed the letter. One of the NSA surveillance programs that has come under scrutiny collects the telephone records of U.S. citizens. The program, which came to light in classified documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, operates under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.