Congress Discusses Future of Internet Surveillance While Silicon Valley Sits on Sidelines

Why are today’s tech giants remaining largely silent on the Internet surveillance debate?

Silicon Valley’s technology giants like Apple, Google, and Facebook have had a lot to say regarding their opposition to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) over the past few years. Initially passed in 1978, the Internet Surveillance bill has been amended twice, with the controversial 2008 FISA Amendments Act that lent itself to the Edward Snowden information leak which revealed that NSA has spied on U.S. citizens.

Recently, however, Congress has brought the controversial internet surveillance bill back to the discussion room, and this time, Silicon Valley remains largely silent.

Controversy over internet surveillance

Technology companies, lobbyists, and privacy groups have for years lobbied specifically against FISA’s Section 702. This infamous “internet surveillance” section enables the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) to review email data and contents, as well as other cyber traffic and communications of foreigners living around the world. Curated specifically to amass information on foreigners, the act also permits data collection on an unidentified number of Americans. Certain privacy groups in Washington imply millions of Americans might be victim to “search warrantless” Internet surveillance at the hands of the government.

In 2013, former NSA employee Edward Snowden leaked details of the NSA surveillance programs where information aggregated under Section 702. The revelations of government surveillance on internet communication thrust technology companies onto an embarrassing national stage. These companies acted quickly to work with privacy rights groups and lobbyists to make some data collection changes. They were successful in curtailing the NSA’s amassed collection of call records, which were the very target of the Snowden leak. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg even took to his personal Facebook to confirm the collaborative changes with President Obama.

With Section 702 back up for discussion, many Republican representatives wish to reinstate the law permanently as a national security measure. Democrats and Libertarians disagree, arguing that the law and internet surveillance is an infringement on personal privacy rights.

Where is Silicon Valley on internet surveillance?

It’s no coincidence that the same tech giants exposed by Snowden are now quietly observing from the sidelines. To explain their inactivity, one must look to Europe where a drafted agreement between the U.S. and European Union, the Privacy Shield, is facing multiple legal challenges. Human rights entities are urging Europe to halt this agreement until Section 702 is considerably revamped. U.S. tech giants are staying out of the public eye because they know that Section 702 reforms are highly unlikely in the present American Congress.

“If you link them, by losing one, you lose both,” said a lobbyist to Fortune.com, who requested to remain anonymous. The lobbyist went on to add that several of these firms are wrapped up in other developments, including working with the Trump administration to make deals that affect revenue and taxation. Others are more focused on the discussion of encryption and what regulations are currently in development. So it seems this is not the right time to engage in a discussion on internet surveillance.

The waiting game

Activists suspect that tech giants may pipe up once the public debate regarding the future of Section 702 becomes clearer. There is no doubt a disagreement between privacy groups and major technology companies today, with a constant onslaught of new developments pitting the two parties against one another.

Privacy groups advocate for these silent tech conglomerates to consider speaking up and using their influence for imposing meaningful constraint on the broadening NSA surveillance scope today. Until then, Silicon Valley is opting for silence on internet surveillance.


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