Tech leaders urge US to limit data collection

Join in calls for more oversight, transparency

Mark Zuckerberg said the US “should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort.”
Mark Zuckerberg said the US “should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort.”

WASHINGTON — A coalition of the nation’s leading technology firms joined an international protest Tuesday against the US government’s spying programs, urging more limits on collections of Americans’ electronic data and greater oversight and transparency about the secret operations.

Top executives from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, AOL, LinkedIn, and Twitter published a joint statement and sent a letter on Tuesday to President Obama and members of Congress. The coalition of tech firms, known as Reform Government Surveillance, urged changes that would include a government agreement not to collect bulk data from Internet communications.

Technology companies expressed outrage last year after media accounts based on leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden disclosed that the United States and Britain intercept massive amounts of electronic Web metadata abroad from foreign computer users and sometimes from Americans. Executives highlighted their concerns during talks with administration officials about the spying programs, but Obama did not commit to curtailing the NSA’s sweeps of data from the Internet.


The stance taken by the technology firms provided a public boost to ‘‘The Day We Fight Back,’’ a day of protest against the government’s spying operations organized by civil liberties and privacy advocates. Activists urged Americans to write and call members of Congress in protest. By midafternoon, ‘‘The Day We Fight Back’’ claimed backers had sent 104,000 e-mails and made nearly 50,000 calls to Congress.

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‘‘Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information,’’ said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a statement on the Reform Government Surveillance website. ‘‘The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort.’’

The civil liberties groups, which include the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are trying to mirror the success that activists had in 2012, when a similar protest effort helped derail two major antipiracy bills in Congress. The organizers oppose a bill sponsored by Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, that would codify and provide legal underpinnings for many of the NSA’s current operations.

‘‘The Day We Fight Back’’ movement prefers a bill cosponsored by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, that would end the bulk collection of phone records and restrict sweeps for electronic and other data.

The Reform Government Surveillance coalition urged the United States and other governments to ‘‘codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances.’’ The group also called for strong ‘‘independent’’ court review that includes ‘‘an adversarial process.’’


Obama has committed to the involvement of a panel of public advocates in some proceedings of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which oversees electronic spying operations. But under Obama’s proposal, the advocates would have limited ability to intervene.

During a White House appearance Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande, Obama said his administration is ‘‘committed to making sure that we are protecting and concerned about the privacy rights of not just Americans, not just our own citizens, but of people around the world, as well.’’

Google CEO Larry Page said on the coalition’s site that the security of users’ electronic data ‘‘is undermined by the apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight, by many governments around the world. It’s time for reform and we urge the US government to lead the way.’’

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said the Snowden revelations ‘‘have shaken the trust of our users.’’ She urged Congress to ‘‘change surveillance laws in order to ensure transparency and accountability for government actions.’’ The remarks by Zuckerberg, Page, and Mayer were echoed by statements from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith, and LinkedIn General Counsel Erika Rottenberg.

The protest effort was also backed by other tech firms, such as Tumblr, Mozilla, and Reddit. But, conspicuously, Verizon and AT&T, two major US phone service providers that turn over bulk customer data to the NSA every day, did not join in.