In NSA surveillance debate, tech firms urge transparency

Some of the Internet companies at the heart of the outcry over U.S. government surveillance today joined with human rights and press freedom groups, including CPJ, in calling for greater government disclosure of electronic communications monitoring.

The statement by the Global Network Initiative follows revelations of a sweeping digital surveillance program led by the U.S. National Security Agency that has alarmed privacy and freedom of expression defenders globally. The Global Network Initiative called “on the United States and other governments to increase the transparency, oversight, and accountability of laws, regulations, and actions concerning communications surveillance.”

The Global Network Initiative, or GNI, is a coalition of leading technology companies–including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo–and human rights groups, Internet freedom advocates, and ethical investors that promotes user privacy and freedom of expression online.  

The GNI acknowledged that governments must weigh national security concerns along with individual freedoms but expressed concern about “inadequate legal safeguards” for privacy under the secret spy programs. It said the lack of transparency involving the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and U.S. surveillance laws prevented companies from reporting on the government requests they receive for client information.

The group called for more of the court’s legal opinions to be declassified to enable greater public debate on oversight of government actions. It also called for an easing of the gag orders placed on companies regarding the national security orders they receive. Finally it urged governments–especially those in the 21-member Freedom Online Coalition, which includes the United States–to lead by example and report on their own surveillance requests.

The GNI noted an argument often made by CPJ: Western governments lose the authority to challenge authoritarian regimes around the world on press freedom violations when their own domestic policies fall short of international standards.

“Contradictions between countries’ domestic surveillance policies and practices and their foreign policy positions on Internet freedom and openness fundamentally undermine their ability to advocate for other governments to support Internet freedom,” the GNI said.