Open Letter to Obama and Congress From Internet Giants Calls For Reining In Government Surveillance

NSAspyingEFFToday, eight leading internet companies have published in several major newspapers an open letter to President Barack Obama and to Members of Congress urging them to rein in the growth of the national security surveillance state. From the letter:

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. 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.

For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure — 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 scope.

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.

The companies behind the letter are AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo. They set out a list of five principles at the ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com website including (1) no bulk collection of user data; (2) independent judicial review of intelligence agency demands, (3) transparent reports on what is being compelled; (4) no country firewalls against cross border data; and (5) a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) among countries to prevent conflicts.

Given the attitudes of authoritarian governments with respect to the internet privacy of their citizens, a comprehensive MLAT that also protects the constitutioinal rights of American citizens to be free from government surveillance might be difficult to negotiate. Or sadly, given the Edward Snowden revelations about the extent of National Security Agency spying, perhaps not that difficult after all. 

Privacy violations mean something very different when companies collect collect vast amounts of customer data in order to target ads and services (as annoying as that may be to some users) than when governments collect the similar information in order to monitor the activities of their citizens. The government gaze is a lot more threatening to liberty than is the Google gaze.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Jordan||

    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.

    Obama quit reading right about there. And how the hell is AOL still around?

  • Steve G||

    Damn, that was my first intended comment: "What's an AOL?"

  • UnCivilServant||

    "Find me another owl disk, I want to talk on the intertubes again. Where'd I put that modem?"

  • Rasilio||

    One of the reasons AOL failed is they never recognized the value they offered as a content aggregator until it was too late.

    As a result they never had a coherent plan to move on from providing dial up access and were completely blindsided by how rapidly fast access was deployed.

    That said even though their days as an ISP are over there are still reasons why people would remain with AOL's existing web portal because it simply had more and better content available for it's members.

    Basically back in the day if you had AOL you not only got dial up access but you got access to content which was not free and would have cost you over $150 a month to purchase individually. AOL still exists in that same basic role, as a content aggregator and web portal much like Yahoo.

  • ||

    I read the title and the excerpt from the letter and this is the first thing that popped into my head;

    "As soon as the emperor finds out about this he will fix it."

  • ||

    It's smart of the group to put it in the newspaper. How else would Obama find out? If they sent it directly to his office, it would never come to light.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Let's just go ahead and close that letter back up.

  • John||

    This is a great piece out of the Hoover Institution

    The U.S. government has spied on American citizens before. In 1918, 250,000 American volunteers joined the American Protective League (APL) to root out German spies residing in the United States during World War I. As David Henderson and I said in our book, Making Great Decisions in Business and Life:

    These ordinary APL volunteers were very effective at getting information about American citizens and reporting suspicious behavior to the Justice Department. They cleverly found that they could “gain access to any house, on the grounds of checking their gas and electric service.” What was the result of their efforts? They reported well over a million “subversives,” which resulted in some deportations for immigration violations and some number of men caught in the midst of marital affairs, but not a single conviction for espionage. Most of the people held in prison for weeks without any charges filed had simply been critics of the war or had made the mistake of eating sauerkraut or listening to Beethoven.

    There probably were German spies in America, but these spies were the proverbial needles in the haystack. Unless the APL’s tests were exquisitely accurate, and very few are, the APL likely would have snagged many more innocent than guilty people.

    http://www.hoover.org/publicat.....cle/161616

  • Dweebston||

    made the mistake of eating sauerkraut

    What the hell else are you supposed to put on a hotdog, ketchup?

  • Brett L||

    Just as long as it isn't mayonnaise. Those people deserve to be put in camps.

  • Moe19||

    You know who else put people...naw, can't do it.

  • Mendelism||

    Ernest P. Worrell?

  • ||

    Dill relish? Cream cheese*? Come on, man, think outside the box.

    * Cream cheese is a real Seattle thing on hot dogs; after a Mariners or Seahawks game the vendors are all over the place. Hot dogs with cream cheese, yup. As gross as it seems, it's not bad when you're loaded and hungry after a game.

  • Dweebston||

    I'll have to try that.

    In lieu of mayonnaise, of course.

  • SweatingGin||

    Chili, of course.

  • ||

    Mustard only for me. Maybe drag it through the garden, occasionally.

  • Mainer2||

    Chicago style ?

  • Ken Shultz||

    Strongly worded letters are nice, but if they really want to have an impact, they should look the financial support they give to the politicians who are hurting them on this issue.

    In fact, instead of trying to influence sitting politicians, who essentially signed off on all this NSA crap to begin with, maybe they should seek out new candidates that were against these abuses from the get go.

    ...even if those candidates do lean libertarian.

  • John||

    They will be right back doing everything they can to get a Democrat elected in 2016. But they won't like it Ken.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I think there is some hope that as issues like gay marriage continue to evolve into non-issues, that they'll come around.

    Republicans aren't helping themselves with the tech industry for being associated with immigrant bashing either.

  • John||

    The silicon valley types are just as big of assholes. If wish the Republicans would call t hem on the HB1 scam. Offer to drastically increase HB1 but make the visas five years and not based on employment. Then watch those assholes who have been exploiting the shit out of HB1 visa holders decide the issue isn't so important anymore.

  • R C Dean||

    Nah, there's always another front in the culture war. Once gay marriage is put to bed, there will be something else. There always is.

  • Acosmist||

    Establishment Republicans are trying to get Zuckerberg slave labor as fast as they can. So, while they may be associated with immigrant bashing, they sure as hell aren't anti-open borders.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The government gaze is a lot more threatening to liberty than is the Google gaze.

    And the government gaze is threatening to Google's bottom line!

    If you can't compete int he marketplace, then authoritarianism can be good for business, but if, like with these tech companies, you can compete just fine? then authoritarianism is bad for business.

    They're having a hard enough time trying to wedge their way into markets in China, India, and elsewhere--hard enough without the federal government giving all those customers excellent reasons to go with a local competitor.

    If the U.S. government wanted to destroy Twitter's, Facebook's, and Google's business models, they could hardly come up with something better than putting all those companies' users under what amounts to NSA surveillance.

    There is no reason why consumers in India can't use a competing service. Switching services is as easy as typing a URL.

  • Pro Libertate||

    You know, it seems to me that these companies may very well have objected--privately--when the government did all of this before, but have only felt empowered enough now, with the NSA's continuous scandal, to publicly complain.

  • sarcasmic||

    I thought they didn't publicly complain because that would have involved revealing classified information.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I meant in general. They're obviously doing it now, after all.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I think they feel better about doing it now with Barack Obama's increasing lame duck status.

    Obama would have loved to remake Silicon Valley in his own image. They saw what Obama did to Wall Street.

  • setTHEline||

    HA! What did Obama do to Wall Street? Slap their wrist? Don't kid yourself, Obama is the Street's call-girl, just like the rest of 'em.

  • Ken Shultz||

    The FDIC seizing banks that aren't even out of compliance, selling their assets off in back room deals and refusing to give the shareholders or bondholders the proceeds of the sale, forced mergers, refusing to let investment banks turn down TARP money, Goldman forced to reclassify as a bank holding company, refusing to let investment banks repay TARP money back because it would let them out from under the thumb of the government, retaliation for executive pay, putting regulators into the banks' offices themselves and looking over the banks' shoulders on every deal, Dodd-Frank...

    There was a time during the credit crunch in 2008-09 when some of the investment banks were worried that there wouldn't be any financing available anywhere else in the world, and there were some institutions who were desperate for TARP funds. However, there were plenty of others who did not want those funds and were forced to take them anyway--because having received them, they gave Obama the justification to regulate them like they'd never been regulated before.

    The reason they made it illegal to pay TARP funds back without the government's approval was not because the investment banks wanted TARP money. Many of them refused to take it, were forced to take it, and wanted to give it back as soon as they got it.

  • Ken Shultz||

    No doubt, Freddie and Fannie and AIG wanted that money--but those guys aren't generally what I'm talking about when I'm talking about Wall Street.

    Most of the rest of them got screwed by Obama, and, yeah, that, along with what Obama did to Chrysler and GM and their shareholders and bond holders, I think it had a profound impact on a lot of industries. When Hugo Chavez nationalized a bank, you don't think it had a chilling effect on other industries? Why wouldn't it work the same way with Obama?

    I'm sure Obama would have loved to reorganize Silicon Valley. He's certainly not reluctant to do so on principle. And if he could have unionized them, that would have been even better. All in the name of national security.

  • setTHEline||

    You make it sound like these banks are really hurting....It may look like Washington runs the Street, but that's only because the monetary overlords want it so. However much these banks put on a front that they don't like this "regulation", they want it. See, if they can export their risk to taxpayers and still take home fat checks with zero effective risk, they'll kiss the golden scepter all day and all night.

  • setTHEline||

    Oh and don't forget that Obama and his Street pals don't care at all about bond and shareholders. But those were just commoners who got screwed - mutuals funds, pension funds, small time folks. Important people were taken care of, whether it was apparent or not. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Obama would love to get his hands on Silicon Valley. And I think Silicon Valley has flirted with big government too much. I just think you have the banks/government paradigm turned upside down.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    I thought they didn't publicly complain because that would have involved revealing classified information.

    Possibly, and/or they didn't complain because they wanted favors or considerations in return. A little crony capitalism oils the wheels. It also leads to fascism, but, hey - as long as they have good (or not so awful) intentions (keeping the public SAFE) then it's all good.

  • CatoTheElder||

    At this point, what difference does it make?

    So what if the President issues an Executive Order that accedes to moderate requests for a little consideration of constitutional rights? The President can, and on occasion has, issued secret EO's that outline exceptions to the public EO.

    So what if the Congress enacts new legislation that explicitly recognizes a modicum of privacy rights? The State can, and when convenient does, have secret interpretations of such law that twists it to mean the opposite of its clear meaning. The State can even get secret court rulings of its secret interpretations.

    But, if the State does not want to bother with secret EO's, secret interpretations, secret rulings, and so forth, it still does what it wants, all the while saying that it doesn't torture, or secretly imprison, or secretly invade its subjects' privacy. FYTW.

    A full-blown Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brings to account every elected official, judge and justice, appointed official, and GS-12+ career bureaucrat involved in the State security apparatus is required to resolve this mess in a credible fashion. Absent that it's just Obama spouting the same old bullshit. It's no more credible than Bush claiming the US doesn't use torture.

  • CatoTheElder||

    Oh, and to be credible, the T&R Commission would have to be chaired by Ron Paul and would include Wyman from the Democrat side, no Republicans other than Paul, and Edward Snowden.

  • Ken Shultz||

    After the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, it took another five years before we got the Ethics in Government Act in 1978...

    We need an independent counsel that works like that again, but it might take a few years before we get it. The present batch isn't about to subject themselves to that. Maybe when they're out of office.

    I know people hate independent counsels for harassing presidents while they're trying to do the important work of government, but as a libertarian, I'm all in favor of harassing presidents while they're trying to do the shit they disguise as the important work of government.

    We just need an independent counsel and an electorate that cares.

    Democratically elected presidents, petty tyrants, and absolute dictators all have one thing in common: they're scared to death of what people are saying about them.

    Independent counsels are great for exploiting that fear.

  • Sevo||

    ..."I'm all in favor of harassing presidents while they're trying to do the shit they disguise as the important work of government."...

    I'd suggesting hobbling and gagging them; cancel their phone service; take the batteries out of whatever screen device they have.
    Lock 'em in a closet and lose the key.

  • Ken Shultz||

    There are a few pieces of legislation that a lot of this crappy stuff stands on in court.

    I think it's high time to sunset the AUMF, which the Obama Administration uses as a legal fig leaf to justify all sorts of otherwise unconstitutional behavior.

    It's true that until someone is held accountable for violating the constitution and the American people's rights, they keep breaking the law with impunity. They'll keep asking for forgiveness rather than permission, anyway.

    But they should still revisit the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. Seems like they stopped apologizing for what they were doing after 2008.

  • Lady Bertrum||

    Without Snowden these crony corporatist wouldn't have the cover to publicly complain. Their complaints, absent any proof of pre-Snowden objections, looks more like PR than real dissent. Cover your asses with the public, boys. CYA.

    Snowden remains the real hero.

  • Sevo||

    "Snowden remains the real hero."
    +1 whistle-blower

  • setTHEline||

    How would you object to your overlords? Don't you see the conflict of interest? Not saying that this isn't mostly PR, but wouldn't you expect these companies to try and push back? I don't think Google could really complain about much without violating gag orders, until Snowden's revelations. Don't forget that Google/Yahoo/Microsoft, while perhaps cronyists, are still subjects of our rulers and their wrath.

  • Sevo||

    Any data on the campaign contributions of the guys running these companies? Just curious to see if they got what they paid for.

  • sarcasmic||

    Former Napster COO, 65, killed after his bike is struck by sheriff's patrol car

    Milton Olin, Jr. was fatally struck by a Los Angeles county sheriff's patrol car on Sunday as he rode in the bike lane
    The driver, who was on a routine patrol, was transported to hospital with minor injuries and will be formerly interviewed today
    Olin was director of operations for Napster between 2000 and 2002 and was a prominent entertainment lawyer


    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new.....l-car.html
    Will anything else happen?

  • Sevo||

    The driver of a car was injured in a collision with a bicycle?
    ERROR! ERROR!

  • The Late P Brooks||

    This just in:

    "IRS hires 1,000 new auditors to review corporate returns."

  • Sevo||

    The audits, of course, will not reflect any political views, unless some janitor in Cinti goes rogue.

  • Marc F Cheney||

    Please. At best, the administration will put up some kind of fig leaf, after which everyone, including these companies, will pretend that everything is OK.

    None of these companies can be trusted with your privacy in any significant way. And it's not because they care or don't care, or because they want your information for their own purposes, or not. It's because they're such huge leverage points for gathering massive amounts of data with just a little pressure, overt or covert, and there is no way in hell the State will keep their hands off them.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The driver, who was on a routine patrol, was transported to hospital with minor injuries and will be formerly interviewed today

    Suffering from grief and sorrow. Also a hangover.

  • Dave Krueger||

    I bet it really irritates the intelligence agencies when someone proposes new legislation that they will eventually have to reinterpret into something completely meaningless.

  • Agile Cyborg||

    And Obama will just smile broadly and coldly. And do nothing. He's the head of the federal government after all... a clutch of arrogance no chart or clever curve can describe.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement