Tech giants call for government surveillance reform

Eight Internet giants have formally urged the US president and Congress to reform and limit government surveillance, and have offered several suggestions on how to do it.

AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo are trying to use their considerable power and influence to defend their own and other Internet users, and consequently their own bottom line, as well.

“We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide,” they said in an open letter published today, online and in the form of full-page ads in a number of wide-read US newspapers.

“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. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.”

“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,” they concluded, and pointed towards a set of principles they would like to see implemented:

  • Limitation of governments’ authority to collect users’ information
  • Oversight and accountability
  • Transparency about government demands
  • Respect of the free flow of information
  • Avoidance of conflicting laws (i.e. governments working together to resolve the conflict).

“The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information. This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world,” stated Google CEO Larry Page.

“Twitter is committed to defending and protecting the voice of our users. Unchecked, undisclosed government surveillance inhibits the free flow of information and restricts their voice,” commented Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter. “The principles we advance today would reform the current system to appropriately balance the needs of security and privacy while safeguarding the essential human right of free expression.”

As Brad Smith, General Counsel and Executive Vice President, Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft, succinctly concluded, “people won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

“The mechanism for striking the balance (between safety and the personal freedoms of people) is clear,” he also pointed out in a blog post. “Government access to personal information must be governed by law. Surveillance should address specific, suspicious targets under defined legal process rather than bulk collection of Internet communications.”

And while addressing the US government, he also rightly pointed out the global nature of this issue. “The world needs a global discussion. Especially given this context, we hope our industry’s suggestions can be of help.”

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