Virtual lines

Tech majors’ letter to the US government could kickstart reform in state surveillance practices.

Written by The Indian Express | Published: December 11, 2013 12:58 am

Tech majors’ letter to the US government could kickstart reform in state surveillance practices.

The neverending stream of leaks about the US National Security Agency’s all-encompassing web of electronic surveillance — this week’s reports suggest the NSA infiltrated new worlds of spycraft by reaching into online gaming forums dotted with trolls and elves in its search for terrorists — appears to have shaken even the most jaded internet users out of their ennui on the issue of control of personal data. People across the world are deeply unhappy about the extraordinary powers vested in intelligence agencies by governments,and they are expressing this discontent by switching over to online service providers with better standards of encryption,or better yet,those that don’t collect customer data at all. It is likely that this direct threat to their revenue streams explains the move by eight of the biggest technology companies — Facebook,Google,Apple,Microsoft,Yahoo,Twitter,LinkedIn and AOL — to advocate for reform in states’ online spying practices.

In an open letter to President Barack Obama and members of Congress on Monday,the coalition proposed that “governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data” and called for a transparent legal framework to regulate how intelligence agencies track and collect user information. These companies also want to be able to disclose the “number and nature” of government demands for data. Also,perhaps fearing a balkanisation of the internet whereby countries prohibit their citizens’ data from leaving their borders,they argue that the onus of smoothing out legal wrinkles should be on governments,especially in cases where laws contradict each other. While the letter addressed the US government,it was directed at governments worldwide,especially since some of the biggest growth markets for these companies are overseas.

Such demands are doubtless motivated by the damage that the loss of consumer trust could do to their bottomlines. There is a not-unfounded perception that technology companies are in cahoots with agencies like the NSA and that the consumer data collected by them is handled cavalierly. Thus,the letter constitutes a public relations exercise as much as a statement of principle. Whether it can begin to restore confidence will become apparent only in coming months,if the consortium is seen to lobby for legislation that would dial back the government’s espionage powers. But this constitutes a step towards sparking a real debate over surveillance and civil rights — a debate that remains in cold storage in India,with the privacy bill,for instance,languishing on the sidelines.

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