The logic of Silicon Valley sometimes works in strange ways. Take the public-relations campaign by a collection of high-profile technology companies: AOL (AOL), Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), LinkedIn (LNKD), Microsoft (MSFT), Yahoo! (YHOO), and Twitter (TWTR). In a Dec. 9 open letter to Congress and President Barack Obama, they called on the U.S. government “to take the lead” and curtail its digital surveillance.
There’s no small amount of self-interest animating this movement. Many of the companies involved acquiesced to government surveillance for years. They’re now finding their voices just as their reputations and bottom lines are threatened by bad publicity as revelations from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden continue to make news.
Intruding on privacy—collecting, packaging, and selling personal information, often without users’ full knowledge and sometimes without their informed consent—is generally what these companies do for a living. The information Facebook collects about you and sells to marketers almost surely dwarfs what the National Security Agency may have inadvertently seen about you. And the NSA is subject to a vast amount of (admittedly imperfect) oversight. The same can’t be said for these tech companies.
There’s a difference, of course, between corporate and state surveillance. A corporation acts on behalf of its shareholders to make a profit. It doesn’t have the vast powers—to tax, to detain, to take life—of the state. Nor is it expected to protect citizens from terrorists.
Here’s an idea. Each of the undersigned companies could take the first step and commit to honoring the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, which was published by the White House in February 2012. The bill would give consumers much greater say over what data are collected about them and how the information is used, and demand much greater transparency and accountability from tech companies that handle your personal information. This may not be quite what the companies had in mind. But without proper oversight, data collection—whether it’s done by spies or social networks—lends itself to abuse.