Silicon Valley firms pressuring Obama to curb surveillance

8 Internet leaders seek to halt damage of NSA revelations

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WASHINGTON -- Silicon Valley is escalating pressure on President Barack Obama to curb the U.S. government surveillance programs that vacuum personal information off the Internet and threaten the technology industry's financial livelihood.

A coalition that includes Google, Apple, Yahoo, Facebook and Microsoft lashed out in an open letter printed Monday in major newspapers and a new website, http://reformgovernmentsurveillance.com. The crusade united eight firms that often compete fiercely against each other, but find themselves joined now to limit the potential damage from revelations about the National Security Agency's snooping on Web surfers.

Twitter Inc., LinkedIn Corp. and AOL Inc. joined Google Inc., Apple Inc., Yahoo Inc., Facebook Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in the push for tighter controls over electronic espionage. The group is immersed in the lives of just about everyone who uses the Internet or a computing device.

As the firms' services and products have become more deeply ingrained in society, they have become integral cogs in the economy. Their prosperity provides the cash to pay for lobbyists and fund campaign contributions that sway public policy.

Monday's public relations offensive is a byproduct of documents leaked over the past six months by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. They reveal that the NSA has been obtaining emails and other personal data from major tech firms under secret court orders for the past five years and scooping up other data through unauthorized hacking into data centers.

Silicon Valley has been fighting back in the courts and Congress, seeking reforms that would let them disclose more information about secret court orders. Several of the firms also are introducing more encryption technology to shield users' data from government spies.

Monday's letter and the new anti-snooping website represent the technology industry's latest salvo in a bid to counter any perception they voluntarily give the government access to users' email and other sensitive data. Although the campaign is ostensibly directed at governments around the world, the United States is clearly the main target.

"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," the letter said. "This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change."

Civil liberties aren't all that's at stake. One reason technology firms 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.

By analyzing search requests, Web-surfing habits, social networking posts and even email content, the companies are able to determine, for instance, the type of digital ads to show individual users.

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 the firms to increase their ad revenue and, ultimately, boost their stock prices.

In a statement, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said the NSA disclosures had "shaken the trust of our users." Google CEO Larry Page and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, two of the richest people in the world, also chimed in with statements urging the United States to adopt reforms to protect personal information.

U.S. intelligence officials have staunchly defended the electronic espionage, contending that the NSA's tactics have helped disrupt terror attacks. Officials also insist that the agency takes care not to look at the content of U.S. citizens' conversations or messages.

Mr. Obama has asked a panel of hand-picked advisers to report on the spying issue this month and recently said he will propose that the NSA use "some self-restraint" in handling data.

White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden indicated that the administration expects to address many of the concerns raised in Monday's letter after Mr. Obama's advisers complete their review. "As we have said repeatedly, we are committed to conducting intelligence activities with appropriate constraints, oversight, transparency and accountability," she said.

Monday's letter goes farther than the companies' previous statements in favor of overhauling surveillance practices, according to Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. He notes that the new principles put forward by the companies include "an unambiguous condemnation" of bulk data collection as conducted by the NSA.

The Silicon Valley companies also are waging an attack in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, where they are fighting to be allowed to reveal more details about how frequently the NSA has been seeking user data. U.S. law currently prevents the recipients of national security orders from breaking down the number of demands they get under the Patriot Act. The companies contend that restriction fuels the erroneous perception that the government has a direct pipeline to their users' data.



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