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December 9, 2013

Internet Firms Continue Campaign for Reformation of U.S. Spy Agency

A coalition of the U.S.’s top Internet companies once again is asking the U.S. government to crack down on the spying activities of the National Security agency.

Google, Yahoo, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and AOL have penned a joint letter to President Barack Obama and members of Congress asking for the reformation of the NSA’s surveillance practices to such an extent that the changes, if enacted, would drastically restyle the agency’s operations.

The letter reads:

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 U.S. 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, which have formed an alliance called Reform Government Surveillance group, have also launched a website devoted to the reform of government surveillance across the globe. The group is urging the U.S. to lead the way as an example to other countries.

“Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. “The U.S. government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right.”

The website lays out the five main principles the group hopes to see enacted.

The principles are:

  1. Limiting Governments’ Authority to Collect Users’ Information

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

2. Oversight and Accountability

Intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information should do so under a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances. Reviewing courts should be independent and include an adversarial process, and governments should allow important rulings of law to be made public in a timely manner so that the courts are accountable to an informed citizenry.

3. Transparency About Government Demands

Transparency is essential to a debate over governments’ surveillance powers and the scope of programs that are administered under those powers. Governments should allow companies to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information. In addition, governments should also promptly disclose this data publicly.

4. Respecting the Free Flow of Information

The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

5. Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments

In order to avoid conflicting laws, there should be a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions, such as improved mutual legal assistance treaty — or “MLAT” — processes. Where the laws of one jurisdiction conflict with the laws of another, it is incumbent upon governments to work together to resolve the conflict.

The companies have been working together for several months in a bid not only to bring change to federal law enforcement practices, but to prove none of them have given up user information without a fight.

All of the tech firms were accused this summer of collaborating with the 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.

Since NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked details about the PRISM program, the Internet firms have been demanding the Obama administration significantly increase transparency when it comes to federal surveillance programs.

The companies in July requested Internet, telephone, and Web-based service providers be granted permission to report in detail national security letter requests from federal law enforcement agencies.

And, as more details about the scope of the NSA’s surveillance continue to be leaked to the media, the coalition has continued to petition the U.S. for change

“Protecting the privacy of our users is incredibly important to Yahoo,” said Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world. Today we join our colleagues in the tech industry calling on the United States Congress to change surveillance laws in order to ensure transparency and accountability for government actions.”

Google CEO Larry Page agreed.

“The security of users’ data is critical, which is why we’ve invested so much in encryption and fight for transparency around government requests for information,” Page said. “This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way.”



Jennifer Cowan is the Managing Editor for SiteProNews.