It only took half a year for the un-beating heart of America's tech sector to show any unified opposition to NSA dragnet techniques: ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com is a lazy piece of PR dreck—and about as transparently self-serving as it gets.
Of course, companies like Google and AOL—which stay in existence by trading in private information—don't want competition. It won't be good for recruiting if promising CS students think the hottest privacy violation game in town is with the feds, not Facebook. Nor is it good for business if we think our most mainstream of mainstream tech companies are cooperating with federal spooks without any fight. Do something, guys. At least make a principled website, come on! So here we have a loose coalition of competitors who can unite under their common resentment of government spying and publish an "open letter to Washington."
Dear Mr. President and Members of Congress,
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 rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change.
For our part, we are focused on keeping users' data secure — deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.
We urge the US 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. To see the full set of principles we support, visit ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com
AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo
Chief among their enumerated demands, are "Limiting Governments' Authority to Collect Users' Information," and "Transparency About Government Demands."
I have no doubt many (most?) employees at these Valley titans really do hate the NSA, and value citizen privacy. But they're also the reason why PRISM worked to begin with—there can't be any massive, shocking data-mining without massive, shocking pools of data to mine in the first place. The Facebook League wants to be able to essentially do what the NSA does—collect our every move and message online—but do so for revenues, not reconnaissance. This "open letter" isn't in defense of your privacy or the sanctity of information, but a matter of who gets it.
But remember: the NSA can't pull anything from these companies that they haven't already pulled from you first. No amount of open letter-ing or principled CEO quoting will be able to change that—but the HTML smoke and mirrors could be enough to distract a credulous and easily sidelined public. They tried, we can say. Remember, they tried with that website. But if this is all really keeping Zuckerberg up at night, it would be nice to see him build a lobbying machine (we know he can!), get yet another meeting with Obama, go to Congress in person—something that's not a 15-minute website.