Google, Facebook, AOL, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo to U.S. Government: Stop Collecting Personal Information – That’s Our Job

As you likely know, Google, Facebook, AOL, Twitter, LinkedIn, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo are suddenly concerned about our privacy.  They have all signed on to an open letter to the President and Congress, in which they say:

We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.

For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure — deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope. 

We urge the US to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight. To see the full set of principles we support, visit

It gets better.  On the website these guys created, Mark Zuckerberg says:

Reports about government surveillance have shown there is a real need for greater disclosure and new limits on how governments collect information. The US government should take this opportunity to lead this reform effort and make things right.

Limits on how information is collected?  Really?

Let’s review some facts:

1.         There is no evidence that, before it became public, any one in this group has objected to the government’s eavesdropping activity.

2.         As to their true motivations, these companies have an economic interest in raising the government surveillance issue, as they stand to lose business outside the United States because of concern about the actions of the NSA. 

3.         The courts haven’t been particularly friendly to individuals making privacy related claims.  These companies have vigorously and successfully defended their privacy practices.  For example, in a recent Google case here and a LinkedIn case here. 

4.         Perhaps, most damning, Google has been accused of collecting communications itself – as summarized in this quote from a New York Times article:

In addition to photographs, Street View vehicles secretly collected e-mail, passwords, images and other personal information from unencrypted home computer networks.     

This nonsense is obviously not a serious attempt to change anything.  But there hasn’t been enough media coverage that is critical of it. 

For example, while it does make some critical points, this PC World article misses some points.  Consider this:

Arguably, there is a difference between the data mining these companies are guilty of and what the NSA has been up to. If Google knows that you’re more likely to buy a cookbook than a bicycle tire, and send advertising to you accordingly, little harm is done. But if the government tracks who you know and what you do, that’s a far more serious invasion of our privacy.

First off, the limit of Google’s knowledge is not what you tell them, it extends to what Google can infer from what you tell them, and they can infer a lot. As Eric Schmidt once said:

We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.

So that pretty much puts Google into the “government tracks who you know and what you do” zone.

To give credit where it is due though, the article also says:

Of course, the private sector’s data mining and the government’s vast collecting aren’t really separate. The first provides massive information to the second, sometimes with the companies’ knowledge and sometimes without it.

That is true. 

We need the media to seriously challenge these companies.  As we’ve noted in the past, we must avoid the trap these companies hope we fall into – focusing on the government and ignoring them.

The media has to step up and confront these companies with their own data practices and to point out the hypocrisy.

Of course, we also need changes in the law to address those practices.   That’s for another day.



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