Apple (AAPL), Facebook, Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO) joined other tech companies and civil liberties groups Thursday in asking the U.S government to reveal more information about its Internet surveillance efforts, amid signs of a growing public backlash against those data-gathering programs.
More than 60 companies and nonprofit groups co-signed a letter that calls on the Obama administration to let Internet companies report how many requests for customer data they receive from national security officials as well as details on how many customer accounts are affected and the kind of data that's requested.
The letter represents the broadest collective action to date by Silicon Valley companies that have tried to distance themselves from the government's data-gathering efforts, since the disclosures by a former National Security Agency contractor rocked the tech industry last month. It follows a contentious hearing in Congress on Wednesday in which members of both parties warned Obama administration officials that the surveillance programs went too far.
"Democracy demands accountability, and accountability requires transparency," Yahoo general counsel Ron Bell said in a statement announcing that his company endorsed the letter to President Barack Obama, senior administration officials and congressional leaders including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
"The American people lack basic information about the scope of the government's surveillance of the Internet, information that many companies would eagerly share with their users if only they weren't gagged by the government," added Kevin Bankston at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology, which helped organize the coalition effort.
While the letter is co-signed by Microsoft, AOL and other leading Internet firms, Bankston said leading telephone service providers "politely declined" to participate in the effort. Telephone companies have long cooperated with U.S. national security programs, according to civil liberties activists, who note that Congress granted them immunity from lawsuits relating to government surveillance several years ago.
Verizon declined to comment and AT&T representatives did not respond to a reporter Thursday. Obama administration officials also had no immediate comment.
Recent weeks have seen a rising drumbeat of demands for more information about government surveillance efforts, which the administration says are vital to guarding against terrorist attacks.
Those efforts include large-scale collection of telephone company "metadata," or records of domestic phone calls that show numbers dialed and times when calls are made. Officials say the metadata doesn't include the content of conversations, but a separate program known as Prism collects the content of certain Internet communications.
While Prism focuses on overseas foreigners who are targets of investigation, U.S. officials say it also may pick up the communications of Americans who have contacts in common with those targets.
Disclosures about those programs have stung U.S. Internet companies, whose business depends on customers trusting them to safeguard their personal information. Those customers include millions of people outside the United States who aren't protected by rules that bar U.S. agencies from spying on American citizens.
Tech companies say they provide information only in response to specific, legal demands. But since national security laws prohibit the companies from disclosing those demands, Google and Microsoft filed lawsuits last month that ask court approval to report how many requests they have handled.
The suits won the backing of civil liberties watchdogs and from U.S. Reps Zoe Lofgren and James Sensenbrenner. Lofgren, a Democrat from Silicon Valley, joined her Republican colleague from Wisconsin in urging the administration to let Internet companies disclose those figures.
"We are skeptical that such an authorization would endanger the national security," the two lawmakers wrote to administration officials this week.
Yahoo, meanwhile, has pushed the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to release classified legal briefs and rulings in a case where the court rejected Yahoo's arguments that demands for customer information are unconstitutional. Similar lawsuits involving other surveillance court rulings have been filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In their letter Thursday, tech companies went beyond asking the government to let them report how many information demands they receive. They also asked to disclose how many customer accounts and devices are affected, and how often the requests involve the content of communications as opposed to metadata. In addition, they urged the government to issue its own reports on the subject.
Meanwhile, the head of a federal privacy oversight board told Bloomberg news that he's seeking input from tech companies for a report to Congress on government surveillance programs. Apple confirmed Thursday that its representatives met with the panel.
"We requested a meeting with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board to strongly advocate for greater transparency about the national security-related requests we receive from the government," an Apple spokeswoman said.
Contact Brandon Bailey at 408-920-5022; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey
A copy of the letter from tech companies and civil liberties groups can be found at: https://www.cdt.org/files/pdfs/weneedtoknow-transparency-letter.pdf