Source: USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO — If the largest U.S. Internet companies want to win back the trust of consumers who care about online privacy, they should start not with appeals to Washington but with reform of their own data-collection technologies and practices.
That data has helped boost their sales yet made users vulnerable to secret surveillance.
Surely an industry that invented everything from Internet search to the sponsored tweet can develop better ways to keep user data safe – if that’s indeed one of its primary concerns.
Whether it is though remains an open question after public statements made this week failed to mention several key facts about why secret NSA surveillance is hurting their industry’s reputation.
First, it’s not the government but the companies themselves, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, LinkedIn and AOL, that collect detailed information on their users.
If these companies didn’t compile it, slice and dice it for online advertisers and hold onto it for sale to online marketers, the spy agency would have far less data to snoop.
Now, those same companies are arguing that “governments… should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.”
That sounds similar to saying ‘you can trust us with your data, but not them,’ an argument that ignores another important fact.
Before these companies learned from leaked documents that the NSA was spying on their users without their knowledge, they were secretly allowing NSA access to information on their users for more than a decade.
Granted, the Patriot Act and other laws passed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks prohibited these companies from saying anything about data requests made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.
Yet even the original author of the Patriot Act, Wisconsin Sen. James Sensenbrenner, is now saying the law has been applied too widely and needs to be reformed, while others in Washington are making similar statements about the FISA court itself.
Yet that won’t undo the damage already done to the reputation of Internet companies who cooperated with the government.
What’s more, instead of embracing data-collection reform, several of these companies — Google in particular — have used their legal and lobbying resources to fight it both here and in Europe, where online privacy protections are stronger.
As recently as September, after the NSA spying came to light, a three-judge panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court in San Francisco rejected Google’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit by consumers whose data was collected for its Street View mapping service.
While the company has apologized for what it has called a mistake by only a handful of employees, it has also continued to fight consumers seeking compensation for having their private Wi-Fi data vacuumed up by Google.
Given the billions of dollars Google earns every year from its users’ data, why not simply apologize, take responsibility, and send a strong message that it is concerned about user privacy.
Similarly, if all these companies had come out with a strong privacy-reform agenda soon after former government contractor Edward Snowden leaked the NSA documents, such action would have looked like legitimate concern for their users, rather than self interest.
Instead, after almost half a year, the best these companies can manage is a plaintive wail to Washington to initiate reforms.
If that’s the best they can do, consumers shouldn’t expect much help to come soon.
Last month, in a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee, its members voted down a series of amendments to the proposed FISA Improvements Act that would limit what type of information the NSA could collect, and how long the agency could keep it, according to a report published Nov. 12.
Ultimately, it is online consumers who will decide whether to keep sharing their personal information on the Internet.
To win back the trust of those whose trust they’ve lost, Internet companies should propose meaningful reform of their practices for collecting and storing data BEFORE they’re compelled to.
With polls beginning to show a growing number of Americans growing wary of such domestic spying, it’s time for the industry to act.
John Shinal has covered tech and financial markets for 15 years at Bloomberg, BusinessWeek, the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal Digital Network and others.