Is Silicon Valley taking a stand in favor of surveillance reform or simply assuming a posture?

Jeff Jarvis writes: Whose side are you on? That is the question MP Keith Vaz asked Alan Rusbridger last week when he challenged the Guardian editor’s patriotism over publishing Edward Snowden’s NSA and GCHQ leaks.

And that is the question answered today by eight tech giants in their letter to the White House and Congress, seeking reform of government surveillance practices worldwide. The companies came down at last on the side of citizens over spies.

Of course, they are also acting in their own economic (albeit enlightened) self-interest, for mass spying via the internet is degrading the publics’, clients’, and other nations’ trust in the cloud and its frequently American proprietors. Spying is bad for the internet; what’s bad for the internet is bad for Silicon Valley; and — to reverse the old General Motors saw — what’s bad for Silicon Valley is bad for America.

But in their letter, the companies stand first and firmly on principle. They propose that government limit its own authority, ending bulk collection of our communication. They urge transparency and oversight of surveillance, which has obviously failed thus far. And they argue against the balkanization of the net and the notion that countries may insist that data respect national borders.

Bravo to all that. I have been waiting for Silicon Valley to establish whether it collectively is a victim or a collaborator in the NSA’s web. I have wondered whether government had commandeered these companies to its ends. I have hoped they would use their power to lobby for our rights. And now I hope government — from Silicon Valley’s senator, NSA fan Dianne Feinstein, to president Obama — will listen.

This is a critical step in sparking real debate over surveillance and civil rights. It was nice that technology companies banded together once before to battle against the overreaching copyright regime known as SOPA and for our ability to watch Batman online. Now they must fight for our fundamental — in America, our constitutional — rights of speech and assembly and against unreasonable search and seizure. ‘Tis a pity it takes eight companies with silly names to do that. [Continue reading…]

The makeup of the band of corporate reformists seems to have been dictated by PowerPoint, which is to say, everyone named on the slides leaked by Snowden wants to salvage their reputation. But the problem with this type of appeal for reform is that it’s no different from the kind that might be made by any toothless advocacy group. Indeed, if these companies just want to present a wish-list of the kind of reform they claim they would like to see, then it’s pretty obvious that if no such reform is forthcoming then it will be back to business as usual.

The only thing about which we can be absolutely confident is that now, as always, corporations will act in accordance with what they determine are their own interests.

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