Do Google and Facebook really care about NSA surveillance limits? VICE writer Elise Ackerman writes that some of the companies affected want reform, but only on the basis that it doesn’t affect their business.
Revelations about the National Security Agency’s most controversial surveillance program, which centers on the bulk collection of hundreds of billions of records of Americans’ phone conversations, were quickly greeted with calls for reform by major internet powerhouses like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo last year.
But all four companies, along with dozens of other major tech firms, are actively opposing an initiative to prevent NSA spying known as the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, leaning on secretive industry lobbying groups while they profess outrage in official statements.
Virtually immediate public condemnation of government spying put the industry in an uncomfortable position when the Snowden leaks began pouring out in June 2013, and in carefully written responses to news reports claiming that they’d cooperated with the now notorious PRISM apparatus, these tech companies emphasized their compliance with existing laws that require them to hand over user data under certain conditions.
“When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if [it] is required by law,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, wrote in a blog post last June. “We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.”
Statements like this suggest Zuckerberg and his industry peers would support legislative efforts to rein in surveillance, and it’s true that they’ve called for reform in letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee applauding a bill known as the USA Freedom Act. Google, Facebook, and six other tech giants have even hired a firm that claims to fight NSA surveillance on their behalf.
The real action, however, has been much subtler, with the industry wielding its influence behind closed doors using two lobbying groups to oppose certain restrictions on internet surveillance: the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the State Privacy and Security Coalition (SPSC). A look at the actions of these two groups suggests that the companies want reform, sure, but only on terms that don’t affect their day-to-day business.
In particular, VICE has uncovered that ITAPS and SPSC have sent letters to politicians lobbying against the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, a wide-sweeping bill that would limit the NSA’s ability to read private electronic communications without a warrant.
Anti-surveillance bills have been introduced over the past year in more than half the states in the union, ranging from narrow laws that would require warrants for location data and email to more sweeping efforts to fight back against federal intrusions by outlawing cooperation with government agencies that engage in electronic-data collection without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act, which has been introduced in more than a dozen states, denies state resources to federal agencies that collect electronic data without a warrant, and to companies that do the agencies’ dirty work for them. Drafted last year by a small group of nonpartisan legal activists affiliated with the Tenth Amendment Center and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the bill is a grassroots attempt to force the NSA to change its data-collection practices—a position that has since been endorsed by the president and members of Congress, albeit in more limited form.
“I think this bill is in the finest traditions of state governments opposing federal encroachments,” said Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general and general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission at a March hearing in Maryland. “It’s important to remember that the Fourth Amendment right to privacy was the spark of the American revolution.”
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