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July 18, 2013

Coalition of Technology Companies, Advocates Demand Increased Transparency on Federal Spying Programs

A group of 63 technology companies and civil liberties groups are demanding the Obama administration significantly increase transparency when it comes to federal surveillance programs.

In a letter addressed to President Barack Obama, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and a number of senators, the coalition — which includes Google, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft and The American Civil Liberties Union — is requesting Internet, telephone, and Web-based service providers be granted permission to report in detail national security letter requests from federal law enforcement agencies.

“Just as the United States has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights,” the letter reads.

To help accomplish that, the letter, published online today, requests permission to report:

• The number of government requests for information about users of any online service;

• The number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information was requested;

• The number of requests seeking communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information.

The group — which also includes AOL, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mozilla, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, The Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch, The Center for Democracy & Technology, Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press, Public Knowledge, The Computer & Communications Industry Association, Reporters Without Borders, and The Wikimedia Foundation — is also urging the government to issue its own transparency reports detailing both the number of requests made and the number of people affected by the requests.

“Basic information about how the government uses its various law enforcement–related investigative authorities has been published for years without any apparent disruption to criminal investigations,” the letter reads. “We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national security–related authorities.

“This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use, and to international users of U.S.-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications.”

The coalition’s letter follows individual requests for transparency from companies such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, all of whom have been accused of collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI on PRISM — an extensive government surveillance plan.

The companies have all denied handing information over willing to authorities, saying they do so only when compelled by court order or national security letter.