Technology giants that for years have waged a fiercely competitive battle against each other on the front lines of cyberspace are for the first time working together against a common foe - the U.S.government.
In response to last summer's revelations about the National Security Agency's snooping on Web surfers - and since then the endless disclosures of additional government spying on citizens here and abroad - the companies are mounting a campaign to curb the U.S.government surveillance programs. A coalition that includes Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft lashed out in an open letter printed Monday in major newspapers across the country and posted on a new website, http://reformgovernmentsurveillance.com.
"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," the companies wrote in the letter addressed to President Barack Obama and members of Congress. "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 outlined five principles that the government should follow to protect the privacy of Internet users.
-- Limit governments' authority to collect users' information. This includes limiting surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and doing away with bulk data collection of Internet communications.
-- Greater oversight and accountability of intelligence agencies seeking to collect or compel the production of information. 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.
-- 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.
-- Respect the free flow of 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.
-- Avoid conflicts among governments by establishing a robust, principled, and transparent framework to govern lawful requests for data across jurisdictions.
In his own statement on the new website, Google CEO Larry Page said, "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. This is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world."
And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg added, "Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information."
Of course, the motives of these billionaire CEOs are not completely altruistic. Protecting the privacy of their customers is paramount to protecting their own bottom lines. One of the reasons the technology companies have become a rich vein for crime-fighting authorities is that they routinely store vast amounts of personal data as part of their efforts to tailor services and target advertising, the Associated Press reports.
The NSA revelations have raised fears that people might shy away from some Internet services or share less information about themselves. Such a shift would make it more difficult for companies to increase their ad revenue and, ultimately, boost their stock prices.
The new principles outlined by the companies contain little information and few promises about their own practices, which privacy advocates say contribute to the government's desire to tap into the companies' data systems, notes a report from the New York Times.
"The companies are placing their users at risk by collecting and retaining so much information," Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times. "As long as this much personal data is collected and kept by these companies, they are always going to be the target of government collection efforts."
However, there is a big difference between a company that collects information about its customers for advertising purposes, and government intruding in our private lives. As consumers we can choose to simply ignore the barrage of advertisements tailored to our habits and interests, but what choices do we have when government uses that same information in a sweeping surveillance program? There is something Orwellian and downright creepy about what the NSA has been doing.
Hopefully with the money and political clout of some of the country's richest CEOs now behind the fight against the NSA surveillance programs we will see some real reforms.