Yahoo! Inc. Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer warned President Barack Obama the backlash over U.S. spying threatens to Balkanize the Internet, as countries adopt different standards to thwart surveillance, according to an industry official.
Mayer was among 15 technology company executives including Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, Facebook Inc. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Google Inc. Chairman Eric Schmidt who met at the White House today to press the president to curb the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs.
Obama didn’t commit to a course of action to address the companies’ concerns, said the official, who was briefed on the meeting and asked to remain anonymous because the discussion was private. The White House said in a statement that Obama “made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs.”
Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and Google were among the companies that signed a Dec. 9 letter to Obama and members of Congress, which said the U.S. should take the lead in changing government surveillance practices after revelations that the NSA gained access to phone and Internet data networks to conduct spying.
The companies asked in the letter that the U.S. “ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”
The other signatories to the statement were AOL Inc., LinkedIn Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Twitter Inc. All except AOL were represented at today’s meeting.
Schmidt began by going over five principles supported by the companies to changing government surveillance programs, including limiting collection of user information and transparency about government demands, according to the industry official.
Google declined to comment because the meeting was private, spokeswoman Niki Fenwick said in an e-mail.
The meeting was convened as the NSA’s sweep of Internet and telephone data is coming under increased scrutiny from Congress and the courts, and as Obama is weighing new limits on such surveillance. Technology companies are dealing with the loss of billions of dollars in overseas business, stricter regulations and erosion of consumer trust as a result of revelations about the NSA’s surveillance.
A federal judge yesterday ruled that the NSA’s collection of telephone metadata is probably illegal, allowing a lawsuit claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution to proceed. It marked the first time a district court ruled on the program.
Obama has defended the NSA’s work as necessary to prevent another terrorist attack, while also saying he will propose some limits to guard against unwarranted snooping in Americans’ private affairs.
Documents leaked by fugitive former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that the agency collects bulk phone records, such as numbers dialed and call durations, on billions of people worldwide, as well as data moving across the Internet.
The documents also show that the agency gained access to the customer accounts of technology companies, circumvented encryption, and tapped fiber-optic cables as part of its surveillance programs, according to reports in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Guardian newspapers.
In a Dec. 5 interview with MSNBC, Obama said he will propose “some self-restraint on the NSA and to initiate some reforms to give people more confidence.” He didn’t give specifics.
The president on Dec. 13 received a classified report from an advisory committee that recommended the government continue collecting bulk records on every U.S. phone call with new restrictions to protect privacy, according to an administration official familiar with the report.
The panel also suggested the imposition of stricter standards before allowing the government to search the data, which it said should be retained by telecommunications companies or a third-party organization instead of the NSA.
Also at the meeting, according to the White House, were: Dick Costolo, chief executive officer of Twitter; Brad Smith, general counsel at Microsoft; and Erika Rottenberg, vice president and general counsel of LinkedIn.
Others who the White House said met with Obama were Chad Dickerson, CEO of Etsy Inc.; Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix Inc.; Drew Houston, CEO of Dropbox Inc.; Burke Norton, chief legal officer of Salesforce.com Inc.; Mark Pincus, chairman of Zynga Inc.; Shervin Pishevar, co-CEO of Sherpa Global; Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast Corp. and Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T Inc.