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The tech giants’ letter to the Senate is just a load of fluff

Posted by on June 6, 2014.

logos verticalNine US tech giants have written to the Senate requesting that the watered down Freedom Act be returned to its original strength. The Freedom Act’s original purpose was to curb the excesses of the NSA; but it was so weakened in its passage through the House of Representatives that many of its original supporters voted against it. Now it seems more likely to allow than prevent NSA mass surveillance. The letter, jointly signed by Tim Armstrong (AOL), Drew Houston (Dropbox), Larry Page (Google), Tim Cook (Apple), Marissa Mayer (Yahoo!), Jeff Weiner (LinkedIn), Dick Costolo (Twitter), Satya Nadella (Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), says:

Confidence in the Internet, both in the U.S. and internationally, has been badly damaged over the last year. It is time for action. As the Senate takes up this important decision, we urge you to ensure that U.S. surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent, and subject to independent oversight. Reform Government Surveillance

The language is mild compared to Brad Smith’s Microsoft blog on Wednesday:

The U.S. government wouldn’t stand for other governments seeking to serve search warrants within American borders to seize the content of U.S. citizens’ emails without going through U.S. legal process. Why should it expect other governments to react any differently? …We need our government to uphold Constitutional privacy protections and adhere to the privacy rules established by law… Unfinished business on government surveillance reform

Other demands are to stop bulk collection of telephone and internet metadata; reform the FISA court; stop hacking data centres and cables; and increase transparency. But all of this is just words meant for the companies’ customers more than to reform government. If governments curb the spy agencies the companies can claim to have forced its hand for the good of their customers; if government doesn’t change, they can claim to have tried. And why should the government change? There is no similar movement in the UK; and I can hardly see the NSA approaching GCHQ cap in hand for handouts in the way that GCHQ currently approaches the NSA. If these tech companies really wanted to change government policy they wouldn’t be writing mild public letters, they would be spending serious money lobbying furiously behind the scenes — just like they have in Europe to water down the Data Protection Regulation. I have seen no evidence that this is happening. If they need any tips, they should ask Monsanto.

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