Big firms are more interested in making deals with the Trump govt that could affect their bottomlines, such as tax repatriation
Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google, Apple Inc and other major technology firms are largely absent from a debate over the renewal of a broad US internet surveillance law, weakening prospects for privacy reforms that would further protect customer data, according to sources familiar with the matter.
While tech companies often lobby Washington on privacy issues, the major firms have been hesitant to enter a fray over a controversial portion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), industry lobbyists, congressional aides and civil liberties advocates said.
Among their concerns is that doing so could jeopardise a trans-Atlantic data transfer pact underpinning billions of dollars in trade in digital services, sources said.
Technology companies and privacy groups have for years complained about the part of FISA known as section 702 that allows the US National Security Agency (NSA) to collect and analyse emails and other digital communications of foreigners living overseas. Though targeted at foreigners, the surveillance also collects data on an unknown number of Americans – some privacy advocates have suggested it could be millions – without a search warrant.
Section 702 will expire at the end of the year unless the Republican-controlled Congress votes to reauthorise it. The White House, US intelligence agencies and many Republican senators want to renew the law, which they consider vital to national security, without changes and make it permanent.
A coalition of Democrats and libertarian-leaning conservatives prefer, however, to amend the law with more privacy safeguards.
Reform Government Su?rveillance, a coalition of tech firms established after the 2013 leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, said reforming the law remains a priority. A spokeswoman declined to comment further but referred to two letters sent earlier this year by technology companies urging Congress to consider changes to the law.
Snowden exposed the spy agency’s programme that collected US phone call meta-data in bulk and also the extent of spying under section 702, embarrassing some US technology firms.
The firmss, working with privacy rights activists, successfully lobbied Congress two years ago to pass legislation that curtailed the NSA’s bulk collection of call reco?rds. For example, Fac?ebook CEO Mark Zuck?e?rberg wrote on his FB pa?ge that he had pers?onally called then-pr?e?s?ident Bar?ack Obama to express “frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future.”
Now, however, Silicon Va?l?ley’s reduced involvement frustrates civil liberties gro?ups because of a widely held view that section 702 poses a far greater th?r?eat to privacy than the teleph?o?ne progra?m?me, which did not harvest actual content. Fa?c?ebook decli?ned comment. Google and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.
The companies’ relative inactivity is explained by several legal challenges in Europe to an agreement between the US and EU, kno?wn as the ‘privacy shield’, sources said. The litigation hinges on whether US surveillance pr?actices afford enough privacy safeguards. A coalition of human rights organisations has urged Europe to suspend ‘privacy shield’ unless section 702 is substantially reformed.
US technology companies have privately bristled at those efforts, three industry lobbyists said, in part beca?use expectations that secti?on 702 reforms will pass Congress are low. “If you link them and you lose one, you lose both,” said one of the lobbyists, who like the others requested anonymity to discuss private conversations with technology companies.
Several major firms were more interested in making deals with the Trump administration that could affect their bottomlines, such as tax rep?atriation, than getting cau?ght in politically ch?arged fig?hts over government surveillance, the lobbyist added
Another industry lobbyist said section 702 surveillance is “not a C-suite issue” that concerns chief executives in Silicon Valley like other issues, including encryption.
Firms have also been limited in how they can lobby for changes to the law beca?use no comprehensive refo?rm bill has been introdu?ced yet in Congress, said Al?ex Ab?do, a privacy advocate and staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House judiciary committee is not expected to introduce such legislation until after Congress returns from its August recess.
The schism between tech firms and privacy groups was on display earlier this year in litigation in Ireland – Facebook argued customer data was sufficiently protected from US spying progra?mmes, while an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union testified that more protections were needed.
Snowden’s leaks showed that section 702 collects content of digital communications directly from the internet backbone and thro?ugh a programme formerly code named Prism where NSA gathered data directly from several companies, including Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft Corp.