United by the Edward Snowden leaks that revealed secret government surveillance programs, the giants in the tech industry are once again publicly voicing their opposition. This time, the companies -- AOL Inc. (NYSE: AOL), Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG), LinkedIn Corp. (NYSE: LNKD), Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT), Twitter Inc. (NYSE: TWTR) and Yahoo Inc. (NASDAQ: YHOO) -- have collectively launched Reform Government Surveillance, a website with five principles it would like governments to follow and an open letter to the American government.
As the title indicates, the tech companies call for governments around the world to reform the laws that regulate government surveillance.
“While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be formed,” the website states, speaking on behalf of all of the tech companies.
The tech companies said that the principles they laid out are consistent with global norms of free expression, privacy and rule-bound law enforcement. From the website, the five principles are:
1. Limiting governments’ authority to collect users' information
Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known uses for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.
2. Oversight and Accountability
Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances. Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process, and governments should allow important rulings of law to be made public in a timely manner so that the courts are accountable to an informed citizenry.
3. Transparency About Government Demands
Transparency is essential to a debate over governments’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers. Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information. In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly.
4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information
The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st-century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.
5. Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments
In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions, such as improved mutual legal assistance treaty -- or “MLAT” -- processes. Where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, it is incumbent upon governments to work together to resolve the conflict.
The CEOs of AOL, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Yahoo each made official statements about Reform Government Surveillance, as well as the legal counsels for LinkedIn and Microsoft.
In the open letter, the tech companies addressed President Obama and Congress and asked them to take steps to reform laws around the five principles and provided a link to the Reform Government Surveillance website. The tech companies also stated that they are employing new methods of encryption to prevent unauthorized surveillance.
The website launched the same day as a new leak from Snowden, which exposed a National Security Agency program to spy on the online gaming community through “World of Warcraft.” Last week it was revealed that the NSA collects around 5 billion cell phone records a day, and over the summer Snowden showed programs to collect user data from these same tech companies.
From the start, the tech companies have denied their involvement in the programs.
Some have accused the tech companies of only speaking up to improve their image with customers and protect profits. WikiLeaks tweeted that the tech companies only spoke up “after seeing profit problems over their complicity in it.”
Google, Apple, Microsoft express concern about mass spying after seeing profit problems over their complicity in it http://t.co/B62L8VMRsz
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) December 9, 2013
Interestingly, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) co-signed the open letter, but is not a part of the overall campaign.