CPJ, coalition press for information on surveillance

CPJ today joined an unprecedented coalition of leading Internet companies and civil liberty activists in the United States to press Washington to be more open about its massive and controversial surveillance programs.

In a letter to President Barack Obama and senior members of Congress, the group asked for more information about government demands to phone and Internet companies for data on their end users. The letter follows growing global criticism of the government spy programs which were revealed last month by fugitive U.S. security contractor Edward Snowden.

The 63-member coalition urged the government to “ensure that those companies who are entrusted with the privacy and security of their users’ data are allowed to regularly report statistics” on the number of requests. The letter was signed by Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo, among others. Major U.S. telephone companies including Verizon and AT&T, which hold vast stores of subscriber data, did not sign the letter.

The Internet companies want to be allowed to publish information on the number of government requests that they received under national security provisions, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and national security letters.

“This information about how and how often the government is using these legal authorities is important to the American people, who are entitled to have an informed public debate about the appropriateness of those authorities and their use, and to international users of U.S.-based service providers who are concerned about the privacy and security of their communications,” the letter said.

The coalition wants more openness not only from corporations but also from the U.S. government itself; the letter called on the administration to issue its own regular “transparency report.”

“Just as the United States has long been an innovator when it comes to the Internet and products and services that rely upon the Internet, so too should it be an innovator when it comes to creating mechanisms to ensure that government is transparent, accountable, and respectful of civil liberties and human rights,” the letter said.