Tech companies call on Obama for government surveillance transparency report

Josh Peterson | Tech Editor

The debate over the U.S. government’s phone and Internet surveillance authorities now includes a proposal for the federal government to issue a transparency report not unlike what Google, Twitter and Microsoft have pioneered.

Major Internet companies, nonprofit organizations, trade groups and investors sent a joint letter Wednesday to President Obama, members of the intelligence community and lawmakers on Capitol Hill urging government transparency in its national security investigations.

In the letter, which contained 65 signatories in all, the coalition proposed that the federal government make available a regular report detailing “the total number of requests under specific authorities for specific types of data, and the number of individuals affected by each.”

The coalition includes Google, Microsoft, Reddit, Demand Progress, Center for Democracy & Technology, American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform, to name a few.

The coalition also requested that the U.S. government — particularly the “Department of Justice, on behalf of the relevant executive branch agencies” — allow the companies it approaches for user data to make that same information about the requests available to their users and subscribers.

Prior to revelations about the National Security Agency’s PRISM Internet surveillance program, Google, Twitter and Microsoft all published transparency reports about government law enforcement user data requests.

Companies approached for user data by the federal government relating to national security investigations are placed under gag orders and cannot acknowledge whether or not they are cooperating with the federal government.

Google and Microsoft, however, succeeded in persuading the federal government to allow them to publish non-specific information about the number of National Security Letters they receive from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Following the revelations, the companies allegedly cooperating with PRISM — hoping to calm their users and win back their trust — began pushing for the federal government to allow them to publish more information about the requests.

The coalition signed on to the letter also called upon Congress to take up legislation “requiring comprehensive transparency reporting by the federal government and clearly allowing for transparency reporting by companies without requiring companies to first seek permission from the government or the FISA Court.”

“Basic information about how the government uses its various law enforcement–related investigative authorities has been published for years without any apparent disruption to criminal investigations,” wrote the coalition.

“We seek permission for the same information to be made available regarding the government’s national security–related authorities,” they said.

Kevin Bankston, CDT Senior Counsel and Director of Free Expression, said in a statement Wednesday, “Democracy requires accountability and accountability requires transparency.”

“Yet the American people lack basic information about the scope of the government’s surveillance of the Internet, information that many companies would eagerly share with their users if only they weren’t gagged by the government,” said Bankston.

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