9 December 2013
Eight Giant Spying Corps Cry for Spy Markets
Tech Giants Issue Call for Limits on Government Surveillance of Users
By EDWARD WYATT and CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
Published: December 9, 2013
Eight prominent technology companies, bruised by revelations of government
spying on their customers data and scrambling to repair the damage
to their reputations, are mounting a public campaign to urge President Obama
and Congress to set new limits on government surveillance.
Executives from prominent technology companies called for greater limits
on government surveillance of their users.
The security of users data is critical, which is why weve 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.
Larry Page, Google
Larry Page, chief of Google, called for reform of security laws worldwide,
saying, We urge the U.S. government to lead the way.
On Monday the companies, led by Google and Microsoft, presented a plan to
regulate online spying and urged the United States to lead a worldwide effort
to restrict it. They accompanied it with an open letter, in the form of full-page
ads in national newspapers, including The New York Times, and a website detailing
It is the broadest and strongest effort by the companies, often archrivals,
to speak with one voice to pressure the government. The tech industry, whose
billionaire founders and executives are highly sought as political donors,
forms a powerful interest group that is increasingly flexing its muscle in
Its now in their business and economic interest to protect their
users privacy and to aggressively push for changes, said Trevor
Timm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The N.S.A.
mass-surveillance programs exist for a simple reason: cooperation with the
tech and telecom companies. If the tech companies no longer want to cooperate,
they have a lot of leverage to force significant reform.
The political push by the technology companies opens a third front in their
battle against government surveillance, which has escalated with recent
revelations about government spying without the companies knowledge.
The companies have also been making technical changes to try to thwart spying
and have been waging a public-relations campaign to convince users that they
are protecting their privacy.
People wont use technology they dont trust, Brad
Smith, Microsofts general counsel, said in a statement. Governments
have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.
Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, AOL and LinkedIn joined Google and Microsoft
in saying that they believed in governments right to protect their
citizens. But, they said, the spying revelations that began last summer with
leaks of National Security Agency materials by Edward J. Snowden showed that
the balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state
and away from the rights of the individual.
The Obama administration has already begun a review of N.S.A. procedures
in reaction to public outrage. The results of that review could be presented
to the White House as soon as this week.
Having done an independent review and brought in a whole bunch of folks
civil libertarians and lawyers and others to examine whats
being done, Ill be proposing some self-restraint on the N.S.A., and
you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence,
Mr. Obama said Thursday on the MSNBC program Hardball.
While the Internet companies fight to maintain authority over their
customers data, their business models depend on collecting the same
information that the spy agencies want, and they have long cooperated with
the government to some extent by handing over data in response to legal requests.
The new principles outlined by the companies contain little information and
few promises about their own practices, which privacy advocates say contribute
to the governments desire to tap into the companies data systems.
The companies are placing their users at risk by collecting and retaining
so much information, said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director
of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy
organization. As long as this much personal data is collected and kept
by these companies, they are always going to be the target of government
For instance, Internet companies store email messages, search queries, payment
details and other personal information to provide online services and show
They are trying to blunt the spying revelations effects on their
businesses. Each disclosure risks alienating users, and foreign governments
are considering laws that would discourage their citizens from using services
from American Internet companies. The cloud computing industry could lose
$180 billion, or a quarter of its revenue, by 2016, according to Forrester
Telecom companies, which were not included in the proposal to Congress, have
had a closer working relationship with the government than the Internet
companies, such as longstanding partnerships to hand over customer information.
While the Internet companies have published so-called transparency reports
about government requests, for example, the telecoms have not.
For the phone companies, said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia
studying the Internet and the law, help with federal spying is a
longstanding tradition with roots in the Cold War. Its another area
where theres a split between old tech and new tech the latter
taking a much more libertarian position.
The new surveillance principles, the Internet companies said, should include
limiting governments authority to collect users information,
setting up a legal system of oversight and accountability for that authority,
allowing the companies to publish the number and nature of the demands for
data, ensuring that users online data can be stored in different countries
and establishing a framework to govern data requests between countries.
In a statement, Larry Page, Googles co-founder and chief executive,
criticized governments for the apparent wholesale collection of data,
in secret and without independent oversight. He added, Its
time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.
In their open letter, the companies maintain they are fighting for their
customers privacy. We are focused on keeping users data
secure, the letter said, deploying the latest encryption technology
to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks, and by pushing back
on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in
The global principles outlined by the companies make no specific mention
of any country and call on the worlds governments to address
the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals
and access to their information. But the open letter to American officials
specifically cites the United States Constitution as the guidepost for new
restrictions on government surveillance.
Chief among the companies proposals is a demand to write sensible
limitations on the ability of government agencies to compel Internet
companies to disclose user data, forbidding the wholesale vacuuming of user
Governments should limit surveillance to specific known users for lawful
purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet
communications, the companies said.
Brian X. Chen contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on December 9, 2013, on page B1
of the New York edition with the headline: Tech Giants Call for Surveillance