Web giants hit back at US surveillance


Eight major US web companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook, made a joint call yesterday (9 December) for tighter controls on how governments collect personal data, intensifying the furore over online surveillance.

In an open letter to US President Barack Obama and Congress, the companies said recent revelations showed the balance had tipped too far in favour of the state in many countries and away from the individual.

In June, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed top secret government surveillance programs that tap into communications on cables linking technology companies' various data centres overseas.

After Snowden's disclosure, many of the big internet companies warned that American businesses may lose revenue abroad as distrustful customers switched to local alternatives.

"We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens," said the letter from the eight firms which also included Microsoft Corp, Twitter, LinkedIn Corp, Yahoo Inc and AOL Inc.

"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."

Several of the eight companies, which have a combined market capitalization of nearly $1.4 trillion, have responded by publicising their decision to boost encryption and security on their sites.

The companies have detailed their 'Reform Government Surveillance' campaign on a website, calling on the US government to take the lead by limiting how much user information a government can collect.

"People won't use technology they don't trust," Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith said on the website. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

The campaign also calls on governments to limit surveillance to specific, known users and not to collect data in bulk, and asks that companies have the right to publish the number and nature of government demands for user information.

"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," Google Chief Executive Larry Page said on the website.

"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 US government to lead the way."

Obama last week said he intended to propose NSA reforms to reassure Americans that their privacy was not being violated by the agency.

British-based campaign group Big Brother Watch welcomed the move by the Internet groups and said surveillance laws in Britain, the US and many other countries were no longer fit for the Internet age.

"This statement of principles, by some of the world's biggest companies, is a watershed moment and one that cannot go ignored in any country that regards itself as a democracy," it said.

"Reports about secret government surveillance have shown that there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information. The US Government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right," said Facebook chairman Mark Zuckerberg.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed earlier this year that the US authorities had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data.

Europeans have reacted angrily to allegations that a US intelligence agency had tapped the servers of internet companies for personal data, saying such activity confirmed their fears about the reach of the government and American web giants and showed that tighter regulations were needed just as the EU and US are launching landmark trade talks.

Snowden is living in Russia under temporary political asylum and is considered a fugitive from justice by American authorities.

After 18th December: Snowden to testify before Parliament by video link

Industry Group

  • Global Government Surveillance Reform: website

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