Tech Giants Form Group to Pressure U.S. Over Surveillance

Amid NSA snooping, the biggest American Internet companies are taking a list of demands to Washington.

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By Ray Hennessey

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

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Seven of the nation's largest technology companies have teamed to pressure the U.S. to scale back its government surveillance programs, demanding five changes in the way the U.S. compiles and uses the data of private citizens.

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens," the companies wrote in an open letter on the website for their coalition. "But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. 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."

The companies involved are Who's Who list of the American Internet: AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo. In one way or another, all were involved in the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans and people abroad. The companies have publicly objected to government access to data – in some cases directly through the companies' own servers. They have also lamented that they were not able to communicate their communications with the government itself, for fear of violating the law. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer went so far as to suggest she could be accused of treason if she made disclosures to the public.

Related: Amid Surveillance Concerns, Two Companies Shut Down

While the companies' letter focuses on individual rights, there is also a big business implication at stake. The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation earlier this year suggested U.S. companies could lose as much as $35 billion over the next three years as businesses and individuals move their data to countries with better data protection.

Indeed, Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, is quoted on the site saying as much. "People won't use technology they don't trust," he wrote. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

The business coalition wants five key changes:

1. Limits on surveillance. In short, the companies are looking for changes in the law that make it harder for the government to force businesses to give up data.

2. Better oversight. The coalition is seeking reform to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves subpoenas. The group wants that court to be more open and have an adversarial process, like the rest of the federal court system.

3. Transparency to customers. A key problem for companies has been their inability to tell customers – and investors – that requests for data had been made by the NSA. The coalition wants more flexibility in disclosing subpoenas to the public.

4. Data flow. The group wants the government to allow transfer of data across borders, without having to worry that the NSA will tap data centers overseas.

5. Better government coordination. All of the companies operate internationally, and so are subject to different surveillance laws in different countries. The coalition wants a treaty or agreements to standardize practices.

Related: Can This Company Save You From The NSA's Prying Eyes?

Ray Hennessey

Former Editorial Director at Entrepreneur Media

Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.

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