Access welcomes internet companies announcement in fight for surveillance reform

This morning eight major internet companies — AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo! — issued a broad and powerful call for surveillance reform. The joint statement represents the strongest stance yet by U.S. internet companies on government surveillance and has the potential to shift the debate in Washington.

Access welcomes this unprecedented statement and looks forward to working alongside the companies to advance greater protections for the fundamental rights of people in the U.S. and abroad. In particular, we support the companies’ calls to end bulk collection of internet communications data, impose strong checks and balances on data collection, and bring greater accountability and independence to the courts authorizing these requests.

Today’s announcement builds on ongoing efforts to end mass surveillance and increase transparency regarding surveillance practices and requests. In addition our June 12th petition calling on the leadership of U.S. internet companies to advocate for reform, Access has also participated in the efforts of the StopWatchingUs and We Need to Know coalitions, advocating for an end to bulk collection and rights-respecting reform of surveillance practices.

The united front against mass surveillance presented by these internet companies stands in contrast to the conspicuous silence of the international telcos, including Verizon and AT&T. Instead of advocating on behalf of their users’ rights, they continue to obfuscate the extent of their cooperation: Just last week, AT&T sought to stop a shareholder resolution calling for transparency regarding the company’s compliance with government surveillance requests.

Access is also pleased to note the companies’ call for an improved Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) framework. This often-overlooked process is outdated, slow, and lacks a robust, transparent approach to human rights protection. We have repeatedly called for reform to these critical and underutilised treaties, and we look forward to working with company and government stakeholders to strengthen this potentially rights-respecting mechanism for exchanging user data across borders.

The principles announced today provide a high-level blueprint of steps that can be taken to reduce the human rights impacts of surveillance practices. However, we encourage companies and lawmakers to look to the Necessary & Proportionate Principles as they build out this reform agenda. The Necessary & Proportionate principles provide a framework for assessing human rights obligations when conducting surveillance, and have already been endorsed by more than 300 civil society organizations.

Words of course must be backed up with actions. While bringing surveillance practices and policies in line with human rights and international law will be an ongoing process, this reform agenda in the United States can and should start with supporting the USA FREEDOM Act, which Access has endorsed, and would further the demands of the companies’ statement. Access looks forward to continuing the discussion about the role of the private sector in mitigating the effects of mass surveillance at our third RightsCon conference March 3-5, 2014 in San Francisco.