Silicon Valley mostly quiet in US Internet surveillance debate



Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc's Google, Apple Inc and other major technology firms are largely absent from a debate over the renewal of a broad US Internet surveillance law, weakening prospects for privacy reforms that would further protect customer data, according to sources familiar with the matter.

While tech companies often lobby Washington on privacy issues, the major firms have been hesitant to enter a fray over a controversial portion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), industry lobbyists, congressional aides and civil liberties advocates said.

Google headquarter in Mountain View, California, US.

Among their concerns is that doing so could jeopardize a trans-Atlantic data transfer pact underpinning billions of dollars in trade in digital services, the sources said.

Technology companies and privacy groups have for years complained about the part of FISA known as Section 702 that allows the US National Security Agency (NSA) to collect and analyze emails and other digital communications of foreigners living overseas.

Though targeted at foreigners, the surveillance also collects data on an unknown number of Americans – some privacy advocates have suggested it could be millions – without a search warrant.

Section 702 will expire at the end of the year unless the Republican-controlled Congress votes to reauthorize it.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (C) greets Facebook employees before speaking at a news conference at Facebook headquarter in Palo Alto, California.

The White House, US intelligence agencies and many Republican senators want to renew the law, which they consider vital to national security, without changes and make it permanent.

A coalition of Democrats and libertarian-leaning conservatives prefer, however, to amend the law with more privacy safeguards.

Reform Government Surveillance, a coalition of tech firms established after the 2013 leaks by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, said reforming the law remains a priority.

A spokeswoman declined to comment further but referred to two letters sent earlier this year by technology companies urging Congress to consider changes to the law.

Edward Snowden on US HBO talk show “Last Week Tonight” on April 5, 2015.

Snowden exposed the spy agency's program that collected US phone call metadata in bulk and also the extent of spying under Section 702, embarrassing some US technology firms.

The companies, working with privacy rights activists, successfully lobbied Congress two years ago to pass legislation that curtailed the NSA's bulk collection of call records.

For example, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page that he had personally called then-President Barack Obama to express "frustration over the damage the government is creating for all of our future."

Now, however, Silicon Valley's reduced involvement frustrates civil liberties groups because of a widely held view that Section 702 poses a far greater threat to privacy than the telephone program, which did not harvest actual content.

Facebook declined comment. Google and Apple did not respond to requests for comment.