US internet firms call for changes to surveillance

Monday 09 December 2013 21.33
Apple is among eight companies claiming surveillance has gone too far
Apple is among eight companies claiming surveillance has gone too far

Eight major US web companies, including Apple, Google and Facebook, have made a joint call for tighter controls on how governments collect personal data.

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

In June, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed top secret government surveillance programmes that tap into data communications.           

After Mr Snowden's disclosure many of the large 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, Linked InCorp, Yahoo Inc and AOL Inc.

"But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide."  

IThe letter continued: "The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favour 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 capitalisation of nearly €1 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. "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.

It 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.

"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."

President 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.