Tech Companies to the Government: Hands off Our Cookie Jars

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others have called on governments to limit their collection of people's online data.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others have called on governments to limit their collection of people’s online data.

For years the nation’s Internet companies have been locked in a high-stakes battle to collect, analyze, and capitalize on their users’ personal data. Today, in a rare moment of harmony, they put aside their infighting to focus on a greater goal: decrying the U.S. government’s efforts to collect and analyze their users’ personal data.

Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, AOL, Twitter, and LinkedIn don’t agree on many things. But it seems they’re unanimous in their conviction that tracking people’s every move on the Web and on their phones raises troubling privacy concerns—when the government does it, that is.

To that end, they’ve created a website, written an open letter, and taken out full-page ads in national newspapers calling on governments to rein in their surveillance activities and establish a legal framework that limits the circumstances under which they’re allowed to collect people’s online information. Together, the tech giants are calling on the world’s governments to adopt five principles.

Those five principles are pretty fascinating when you actually read them. The first three are about limiting governments’ powers to collect users’ information—and the fourth one, as far as I can tell, is about preventing governments from limiting tech companies’ powers to collect users’ information. I’m not kidding. Here’s principle number four, in full:

4.       Respecting the Free Flow of Information
The ability of data to flow or be accessed across borders is essential to a robust 21st century global economy. Governments should permit the transfer of data and should not inhibit access by companies or individuals to lawfully available information that is stored outside of the country. Governments should not require service providers to locate infrastructure within a country’s borders or operate locally.

As the New York Times points out:

While the Internet companies fight to maintain authority over their customers’ data, their business models depend on collecting the same information that the spy agencies want, and they have long cooperated with the government to some extent by handing over data in response to legal requests.

The new principles outlined by the companies contain little information and few promises about their own practices, which privacy advocates say contribute to the government’s desire to tap into the companies’ data systems.

Oh, and the fifth principle is about how the world’s governments ought to work together to get their laws straight so that tech companies don’t have to deal with confusing, sometimes conflicting policies when responding to various regimes’ data requests. These are the same companies, mind you, that each offer consumers their own interminable, utterly confusing and often conflicting legally binding terms of service and end-user license agreements.

Some say these tech companies should be applauded for belatedly pushing back against government surveillance. And sure, there’s merit to their proposals for greater oversight, transparency, and checks on government data collection. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Trevor Timm pointed out to the Times:

“It’s now in their business and economic interest to protect their users’ privacy and to aggressively push for changes. The N.S.A. mass-surveillance programs exist for a simple reason: cooperation with the tech and telecom companies.””

Granted, it was the telecoms and not today’s big tech companies that started the practice of secretly giving away users’ information to government spooks. In many ways they remain the worst offenders, and it’s worth noting that none of them are among the co-signers of today’s document. Perhaps we should be grateful that today’s tech giants at least take their users’ privacy seriously enough to come out and say something about it.

But it’s hard to wave away the whiffs of hypocrisy emanating from such an obviously self-serving stance—especially when Facebook and Google are at the same time spending piles of money to resist European governments’ calls for reform and transparency in their own practices. In short, it feels less like the big tech companies are calling on governments’ to respect users’ privacy rights, and more like they’re trying to protect their own hundred-billion-dollar cookie jars.