Eight prominent Internet technology companies unveiled an open letter last week calling for reforms to the government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. “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,” reads the letter, published on a website that lays out five principles for reform, including greater oversight and transparency, as well as an end to bulk data collection.
Executives from seven of the firms will meet with President Obama on Tuesday, in the shadow of a federal judge’s ruling that the collection of domestic phone records is "almost certainly" unconstitutional. The opinion from US District Judge Richard Leon reinforces the impression that NSA overreach constitutes a primary threat to privacy and civil liberty. But some privacy advocates caution that even if the NSA’s programs are scaled back, surveillance infrastructure will persist in the private sector—thanks to the same companies now calling for reform, whose business models depend on the collection and sale of vast quantities of personal information.
“It’s one-stop shopping for the NSA,” warned Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer privacy advocacy group. “What they’ve done is create a global commercial surveillance system that is engaged in the same kind of pervasive tracking and analysis [as the NSA].”
The engagement of IT companies in the debate about the state’s surveillance powers seems like a clear win for reformers. Though they lack detail, the firms’ principles align with many of the changes called for by privacy advocates. This is the first time that the tech giants—including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Apple—have made a joint political statement, and the move is well-timed: early in the new year Congress will weigh competing legislation with the potential to roll-back some of the NSA’s overreach, or enshrine data collection programs in law. With a combined value of $1.4 trillion and a growing lobbying presence in Washington, these companies wield considerable influence.
“We’re happy to have them in this fight,” said Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Of course the real question is the next step—whether they are willing to put lobbying muscle behind it.”
Another question is how far the interests of the Internet giants really overlap with the concerns of civil libertarians. Nowhere in their calls for reform do the IT companies address the privacy implications of selling troves of personal information collected from millions of Americans to online advertisers. Substantial investment and innovation in data collection by the private sector has enriched shareholders, and enabled the government’s spying programs.
“The accumulation of corporate power in terms of having these very powerful dossiers of every individual, their networks and locations, gives them tremendous influence over our lives. These corporations have agendas as well,” said Chester.
This agenda—in short, to convert users into a source of profit—is less sinister at face value than the prospect that the NSA’s surveillance programs will ossify into the architecture of a police state. Unlike government spying, data collection and tracking by the private sector is largely opt-in: no one forces us to click “agree” at the end of a long and opaque user agreement. And the risks of sharing personal information seem low; Facebook will not haul you off to jail because of who your friends are.