Leading U.S. tech firms beg governments (starting with theirs) to reform surveillance practices

Eight leading American technology firms have called on the United States President and Congress – and their counterparts around the world — to rein in government surveillance.

Microsoft(s msft), Google(s goog), LinkedIn(s lnkd), Apple(s aapl), AOL(s aol), Yahoo(s yhoo), Facebook(s fb) and Twitter(s twtr) said in an open letter on Sunday that they were all encrypting their systems and “pushing back on government requests” for customer data “to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.” However, the firms said, they need President Obama and Congress to “take the lead on reform.”

Specifically, the companies said that:

  • Governments should avoid bulk data collection of internet communications, instead limiting surveillance to targeted situations.
  • There should be a clear legal framework for surveillance by intelligence agencies, with independent oversight courts that allow an “adversarial process” – i.e. there’s someone around to raise the arguments against surveillance in any given case.
  • Governments should “allow companies to publish the number and nature of demand for user information.”
  • 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.”
  • There should be an international framework for lawful data requests across borders, with governments working together to avoid any jurisdictional conflicts.

Since early June, National Security Agency (NSA) documents leaked by former agency contractor Edward Snowden have revealed mass surveillance conducted by the NSA and its partners around the world. These programs are recording bulk data about people’s internet and phone use. The idea appears to be to sift through this data in search of terrorism suspects, but the scope is ill-defined and millions of ordinary citizens are being caught up in the dragnet.

Previous attempts by the tech giants to speak with one voice on the surveillance issue have centered on transparency, calling on government to allow them to be more honest with customers about the numbers of targeted data requests.

According to the new open letter, as published on Microsoft’s website:

“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… individual¬¬ rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for change.”

The letter also includes quotes from various of the firms’ executives. Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel, really hit the nail on the head:

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it.”

Although there is no indication yet that the companies’ stock price as been hurt by the surveillance revelations, theirs is a long-term game that is predicated upon growth, which is in turn dependent on people feeling comfortable about moving their lives online. The surveillance revelations make that future uncertain at best.

Crucially, these are also all consumer-facing American companies, and as such they could face a backlash as people outside the U.S. slowly develop homegrown alternatives, fearing the security implications of using American tech. Early warning signs may already be starting to appear behind the scenes – telecommunications equipment-maker Cisco(s csco) said in November that it expected a significant drop in revenues due to a fall in international demand.

In that context, some skeptics may view the vendor pleas as more public relations than substantive attempts to change policy.

Countries such as Brazil and Germany have also suggested keeping internet traffic within national borders, as a way of protecting it against U.S. snooping. It’s a nonsensical idea in practice, but a worrying enough threat for the eight web firms to make their point about preserving the free international flow of data — this missive was not purely intended for U.S. government consumption.