Civil liberties activists fighting the National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs may finally receive the high-profile help they’ve been looking for. The help, however, is from an unlikely source. High-powered executives from some of America’s largest tech companies, such as Facebook and Google, are joining the fight against the NSA’s data mining.
These new opponents of the NSA’s programs are using their influence to discuss the future of surveillance programs with President Barack Obama himself.
You may wonder why Fortune 500 corporations are taking an interest in civil liberties, an area that historically has not been a priority for them. The answer is quite simple: profit. Since the passage of the Patriot Act in 2001, many foreign corporations have grown skeptical of American tech companies, while others have abandoned American corporations in favor of South American and European competitors. However, the feeling of distrust is not limited to foreign corporations; governments have begun to distance themselves from American companies, too. For example, Brazil and the European Union, which previously used American undersea cables for intercontinental communication, recently decided to build their own cables between Brazil and Portugal, and gave the contract to Brazilian and Spanish companies.
This distrust means lost opportunities and revenue for American tech companies, and this trend will only grow if policies aren’t changed. According to one estimate, the cloud computing industry alone could lose up to $35 billion by 2016 if changes aren’t made. In order to prevent these losses, many of the leading tech firms have banded together to form Reform Government Surveillance, a well-funded anti-NSA lobbying coalition. The group recently registered its own lobbyists, and will undoubtedly be given the vast wealth of its sponsors.
Although their overall motives may be different than ours, improbable activists like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt may be the best chance we have at reigning in the NSA’s surveillance programs. Given the huge influence of money in politics, the lobbyists at Reform Government Surveillance are likely to get the attention of many politicians. In addition to their wealth, Zuckerberg and Schmidt’s reputations are forces to be reckoned with. Their national prominence earned them seats at the bargaining table directly across from the president of the United States. While the government can afford to ignore the complaints of ordinary citizens, it cannot afford to disregard the combined efforts of some of the largest and richest corporations in the world. The government must make its choice quickly, as the U.S. has plenty to gain through reform of surveillance programs, but much more to lose through inaction.