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Tech Heavyweights Launch Surveillance Reform Campaign

| December 9, 2013
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A computer workstation at the NSA Threat Operations Center at Fort Meade, Md. (Paul. J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images)

A computer workstation at the NSA Threat Operations Center at Fort Meade, Md. (Paul. J. Richards/AFP-Getty Images)

Eight firms that handle massive amounts of Americans’ personal data and communications have launched a campaign to pressure the U.S. government to rein in its surveillance efforts after more than six months of disclosures about far-reaching National Security Agency spying programs.

The campaign, called Reform Government Surveillance, calls on governments around the world to adopt five principles to narrow spying on citizens. The effort involves AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo. The companies are responding to revelations about NSA spying touched off in June by former agency contractor Edward Snowden.

The five principles the companies are campaigning for:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Although the companies’ appeal is addressed to “the world’s governments,” they also include an “open letter to Washington that says in part: “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.”

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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