Yahoo (YHOO), Twitter (TWTR), Facebook (FB), and 5 other tech companies have united to demand a sweeping change to U.S. surveillance laws. In an open letter calling for Global Government Surveillance Reform, the group offers a 5 point plan it says will help create a system by which the NSA and law enforcement agencies can perform their work in a manner that is rule-bound, transparant, and subject to oversight.
What the group presumably wants above else is a way to take itself out of the middle of the debate on international monitoring of Internet activity. The current process of governments demanding information from the tech companies put government interests in perceived conflict with tech companies attempting to protect user privacy. As the chief executive of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, puts it: “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world."
What the companies are looking for is a codified process for handling information requests from various governments. This is not to be confused with a demand that user information be held sacred. The government will continue to have controlled access to where you go and with whom you interact online. The social media and other internet-based companies simply need a way to get out of the position of being the gatekeeper for which information it surrenders to the government freely, and what enforcement agencies take against the companies’ will.
As Breakout’s Matt Nesto and I discuss in the attached clip, the government isn’t going to go anywhere when it comes to taking your information and neither are the companies themselves. Just because you’re paranoid about being watched online doesn’t mean you’re wrong. “I don’t know if the companies are in any position to change or if consumers are,” ponders Nesto. The companies are largely built around the idea of understanding their users and selling personal information to marketers, if not on an individual level then certainly on a group basis.
The companies are clear in their business models. Facebook has never pretended to protect individual information. We’re long past the days when people going online had any reason to think what they were doing was truly private in any real sense. The group of 8 powerful tech companies is pushing to have the rules formalized as much for the purpose of ending the PR nightmare and legal expenses as to protect your privacy. As Nesto notes the potential upside for consumers is that the number of agencies with access to your information is limited or at least understood in advance by users, but the information itself is unlikley to become more private.
The bottom line is this: If you’re online and doing something you shouldn’t, it’s a decent bet that you’re being watched. Whether or not your your activity is interesting enough to draw individual attention is for each web surfer to decide for his or herself.