Bold Action, Not Distractions, Needed To Reform Surveillance Policy

Ed Black | President and CEO, CCIA

Early this month, the Obama administration released two rigorous and thoughtful reports on commercial privacy issues involving so-called big data. As useful as they may be for the subject at hand, the reports made no attempt to address the most pressing controversy in the online privacy arena: widespread warrantless government surveillance. Is it sleight of hand when top officials keep the nation’s brightest privacy minds busy on projects that sidestep and deflect attention from the Snowden-induced controversy over NSA surveillance programs?

This misdirection was foreshadowed when the president mentioned the big data privacy review in a speech billed to address NSA surveillance concerns, saying “the challenges to our privacy do not come from government alone.” His remarks came just a week before the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, an independent watchdog within the executive branch, issued its own scathing report on the NSA’s surveillance tactics. In other words, the president was coping with an embarrassing critique by his own administration, by calling for a robust review of a separate topic: commercial use of big data.

For some perspective, let’s remember the 1997 Clinton administration report on commercial Internet policy, widely lauded as a sensible basis for government policy during the early years of the Internet. Ironically, one of its core conclusions involved the need for Internet users to have confidence that their data is safe from unauthorized access if global Internet commerce is to thrive.

Today, the Internet has indeed become one of the bright spots of both the U.S. and global economies. But if the 1997 report offered sage guidance, that guidance is even more important today as we grapple with unprecedented digital privacy threats. To that end, Congress already has legislation under consideration that we hoped would provide much-needed updates to the U.S. surveillance framework and begin the process of restoring user trust.

Currently, legislation passed by the House Judiciary and House Intelligence Committees would have curtailed bulk collection and reined in unchecked government surveillance. But due to last minute political maneuvering by the administration, the version that passed the House today passed with a loophole the could enable the bulk collection of Internet users’ data. Tech companies and civil rights groups are now looking to the Senate to fix those problems and improve transparency about what is being collected.

Instead of lobbying to water down the bill, the administration should be publicly and forcefully fighting to strengthen the protection of individual rights in these bills, in order to rebuild public trust. Once lost, it’s hard to regain, so it’s important that policymakers send a united message that they understand the problem and are trying to fix it.

Leaked documents have shown NSA Internet surveillance efforts are out of control and the scandal has jeopardized everything from Internet governance to a key treaty on exchanging digital data to digital trade provisions under negotiation by the U.S. Trade Representative’s office.

The president has publicly recognized there is a problem, discussing in a recent speech at the Hague the need to “win back the trust of governments, but, more importantly, of ordinary citizens.” Unfortunately, trust doesn’t come from generalized commitments or reports that deflect attention from the problem at hand. We need binding law and meaningful oversight. Congress must act, and the administration should throw its weight behind strong reforms to regain credibility on this issue.  The fate of the Internet economy depends upon it.

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