In a dramatic sign of growing friction between Silicon Valley and U.S. intelligence efforts, six major tech companies including Google, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo on Thursday publicly called for reining in government surveillance programs that have prompted growing controversy around the world.
The call came in a letter to Congress released one day after a report that the National Security Agency has tapped overseas data transmissions between computer centers operated by Google and Yahoo, although one industry source said the letter wasn't prompted solely by that report.
While the companies are joining a chorus of critics, their ability to influence the issue is uncertain. But experts said the tech industry clearly has the ability to exert clout in Washington, and civil liberties advocates applauded the companies' new stance.
“The fact they decided to say something is important. If they're serious about it, they can make a difference,” said Jennifer Stisa Granick, director of civil liberties at Stanford's Center for Internet and Society, who noted that tech companies played a significant role in fighting a controversial online piracy bill last year.
The letter released Thursday marks the first time the major tech companies have gone beyond their previous calls for more “transparency” in disclosing how often the government requires them to surrender customer data under national security laws.
“It is clear that more needs to be done,” said the letter signed by the four Silicon Valley companies, along with Microsoft and AOL. They called for unspecified reforms that include “substantial enhancements to privacy protections” and more outside oversight of the surveillance programs.
Tech companies spend millions to lobby Washington on business issues, and industry leaders have spoken out on other matters such as immigration reform. The government, meanwhile, often turns to Silicon Valley for expertise in solving tech problems and combating cybersecurity threats. This week, the Obama administration recruited experts from Google and Oracle to help fix the trouble-plagued health care insurance website.
But the current debate hits hard at that close relationship because it affects the companies' customers, said Larry Gerston, a political science expert at San Jose State. Tech companies have said they fear that consumers and business customers around the world will lose faith in Silicon Valley's ability to safeguard sensitive information and communications.
While the letter did not specify any reforms, it singled out a recently introduced bill that would allow more disclosure of government data requests and impose limits on surveillance, while ending the bulk collection of Americans' communication records. It would also create a public advocate to advise the court that rules on government surveillance cases.
“We applaud the sponsors of the USA Freedom Act for making an important contribution to this discussion,” said the letter, which was addressed to the bill's chief sponsors, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
The letter said little more, and company representatives declined to comment or couldn't be reached. But the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology termed it a “bold call for surveillance reform.”
The USA Freedom Act is one of several competing bills introduced after news leaks revealed that U.S. data-gathering apparently extends to many U.S. citizens and includes digital communications through U.S.-based Internet companies. The Obama administration has said the efforts are primarily focused overseas and are necessary to combat terrorism.
Local legislators are divided on the best way to respond. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, is a co-sponsor of the Leahy-Sensenbrenner bill. But California's senior Democratic U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, has introduced a competing bill that privacy groups complain would legitimize the data-gathering without enacting sufficient controls.