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9 Dec, 2013 17:08

US internet giants demand sweeping changes to spy laws in open letter to Obama

US internet giants demand sweeping changes to spy laws in open letter to Obama

The world’s leading technology companies have addressed Washington in an open letter to demand a radical overhaul of surveillance laws, an international ban of bulk data collection and for the US to lead the way in restoring trust in the internet.

Apple, AOL, Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo and Microsoft whose combined value is estimated at $1.4 trillion published an open letter Monday advocating radical reforms.

The letter states that while the leaders of these companies understand the duty of government to protect their citizens the balance has tipped too far away from the rights, enshrined in the US constitution, to individual privacy.

“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 way 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 letter reads.

Seven of the above mentioned companies also created a special website where they listed what they believe are the key principles regarding the use of the internet and state surveillance, which should be adopted by government.

The top of this list was limiting the government’s authority to collect users’ information.They also called for a clear legal framework, which intelligence agencies must adhere to when collecting information, including an independent adversarial process.

The technology companies also warn that governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally or inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country.

The companies argue that governments must work together to agree new international standards regulating surveillance and hint at legal disputes and a damage to international trade otherwise.

“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,” they say.

Diane Feinstein (D-CA) (AFP Photo / Mark Wilson)

The companies claim the revelations of NSA surveillance by whistleblower Edward Snowden have damaged the public’s faith in the internet, which is having a direct effect on their business interests.

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust. Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need help restore it,” said Brad Smith, Microsoft’s general counsel.

His words were echoed by the chief executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer:

“Recent revelations about government surveillance have shaken the trust of our users,” she wrote.

In September Facebook and Yahoo followed Google and Microsoft in filing motions to the FISA court that would allow them to make public NSA data requests.

The principles as stated by the seven web giants are similar to cross party legislation proposed by Patrick Leahy, the Democratic chair of the Senate judiciary committee and Jim Sensenbrenner, the Republican author of the Patriot Act.

Both the internet giants of Silicon Valley and these key players in Congress agree that the NSA should no longer be able to indiscriminately gather huge quantities of information from individuals its doesn’t even suspect of terrorism but just to detect patterns or in case it might need it in the future.

In a closed session last month, the US Senate Intelligence Committee approved draft legislation by Senator Dianne Feinstein that would make the NSA’s bulk collection of domestic telephone metadata legal. The bill will cement phone metadata collection into the business records provision of the Patriot Act, which strengthens NSA operations under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).Feinstein has been accused of being a cheerleader for Washington’s intelligence community but as the Democrat representative for California it puts her in direct opposition to Silicon Valley and some of her state’s most important tax payers and employers.

Feinstein does agree with the Leahy/Sensenbrenner bill that there should be more opportunity for advocates of personal privacy to argue against intelligence agency requests. Critics of the bill say it doesn’t go far enough to protect American’s privacy.