Tech giants collectively call for limits to government snooping

Eight of the United States' leading technology companies published an open letter in major newspapers Monday, calling for the U.S. to take the lead in reforming government surveillance activities that currently put the needs of the state before individuals.

"This summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," says the letter, published by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo. "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."

Days earlier, President Obama defended the National Security Agency, while also promising vague reforms. He also said the reports about sweeping surveillance activity, brought to light by former government contractor Edward Snowden, have in some cases been overstated.

The public letter represents one of the strongest efforts from the tech sector to push back against government surveillance since the Snowden leaks were published over the summer. In addition to the open letter to President Obama and the Congress, the companies published a set of principles for reform, laid out atreformgovernmentsurveillance.com.

Governments, it says should "codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data" and limit their surveillance to specific users. When the government does request information from service providers, those companies should be able to publish the number and nature of those demands.

The companies also call for "a clear legal framework in which executive powers are subject to strong checks and balances." Independent courts reviewing surveillance practices should include an adversarial process, they say -- something that does not exist in the United States' Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court (known as the FISA Court, or FISC).

Congress has discussed adding an adversarial process to the FISC, among other potential changes. On Friday, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the authors of the Patriot Act, said that Mr. Obama should fire both NSA Director Keith Alexander and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and that Clapper should be prosecuted for lying to Congress about the NSA programs.

"Lying to Congress is a federal offense, and Clapper ought to be fired and prosecuted for it," Sensenbrenner told the Hill. Sensenbrenner also said that Clapper (a retired lieutenant general in the Air Force) and Alexander (a four-star Army general) should be replaced by civilians.

U.S. surveillance programs have also drawn criticism from former President Bill Clinton recently, who reportedly told the Brazilian newspaper O Globo that "we shouldn't collect economic information under the pretext of security."

The spying programs have prompted international discussion of a more fractured Internet, but in the principles they laid out online, the eight tech companies discouraged that. "Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country," they said.

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