Internet giants stoke fires on NSA reform


Bosses from Internet giants including Twitter and Facebook pressed President Barack Obama on Tuesday for reforms of U.S. spy agency snooping, adding to building pressure from the courts and America’s allies.

Obama met a group of the country’s most iconic Silicon Valley firms and spent two hours discussing the National Security Agency’s clandestine electronic data mining operation, known as PRISM, a participant in the meeting said.

The Internet company bosses fear that NSA operations have crossed constitutional lines and infringe on the privacy of their customers and users in the United States and abroad, something that could also impact their economic bottom lines.

“We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the President our principles on government surveillance,” said a representative of the companies after the meeting ended.

“We urge him to move aggressively on reform.”

Another participant said the session started with a discussion on attempts to repair the website that undermined the rollout of Obama’s health care reform package.

Obama and Vice President Joe Biden then spent two hours going through the implications of NSA programs.

The talks focused on reforms of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which regulates clandestine eavesdropping, electronic privacy legislation and other legal issues.

The participant said the Internet firm executives laid out their case for transparency in the programs.

Top executives at the talks included Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, Tim Cook of Apple, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, Eric Schmidt of Google and Dick Costolo of Twitter.

Eight leading U.S.-based technology companies have also called on Washington to overhaul its surveillance laws following revelations of online eavesdropping.

“The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution,” they wrote in an open letter to Obama.

The meeting came a day after a U.S. court ruled that the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of telephone records was probably unconstitutional — the first blow in a long legal tussle over the program.

It also took place in the midst of Obama’s review of findings by an intelligence review panel he set up to recommend reform of the spy agency’s activities in the wake of revelations by fugitive intelligence analyst Edward Snowden.

The meeting, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, was closed to reporters and Obama made no public remarks. Press photographers were allowed into the room for less than a minute.

Obama was familiar with many of the people in the meeting — a number are wealthy, high-profile supporters of his political campaigns.

But the revelations of a massive U.S. spy snooping program on the Internet have strained ties between the White House and the U.S. tech sector.

The White House said in a statement that Obama made clear his belief in an open, free and innovative Internet.

“We will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs.”

Obama is expected to address the American people in January about intelligence reforms he plans to put in place once he has considered the review panel report.

Aides say he will propose some restraints on snooping on Internet and telephone data but he is believed to be committed to permitting NSA data mining to continue, as U.S. spy chiefs say it is vital to their campaign against terrorism.

A federal judge in Washington on Monday ruled that the NSA program was likely unconstitutional, in the first stage of a battle likely to end in the Supreme Court.

“I cannot imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen,” U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon said.

Snowden, who is currently living in temporary asylum in Russia, meanwhile issued an open letter to Brazil on Tuesday, saying he could help the country’s investigation into U.S. spying.

But he said that he would need refuge to do so, in a move widely interpreted as a request for asylum in Brazil.

“These programs were never about terrorism: they’re about economic spying, social control, and diplomatic manipulation,” Snowden wrote in the letter.

“They’re about power.”

The leaks by Snowden have deeply embarrassed Washington, alienated many allies and raised searching questions about the balance between individual privacy and the battle against terrorism in U.S. society.