Google to Congress: Revise Privacy Law to Protect User Communications

Google asked Congress to update privacy laws to require warrants to access user communications. The company also participated in "The Day We Fight Back" effort.

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Google, which late last year loudly protested the powerful revelations of spying on U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency (NSA), is now asking Congress to update a key federal law so that government entities would have to obtain a warrant from a judge to peruse the contents of private communications.

The request was made by Susan Molinari, Google's vice president of public policy, in a Feb. 11 post on the Google Public Policy Blog, the same day that Google participated in the worldwide "The Day We Fight Back" effort, which brought together a diverse group of organizations that oppose inappropriate government surveillance by the NSA.

"The revelations about government surveillance practices—both in the U.S. and globally—over the past eight months have sparked a serious and overdue debate about the nature and scope of existing laws and programs," wrote Molinari. "Google recognizes the very real threats that the U.S. and other countries face, but we strongly believe that government surveillance programs should operate under a legal framework that is rule-bound, narrowly tailored, transparent and subject to oversight."

A key step to ensure that needed reforms to government surveillance laws do occur is that the U.S. Congress must update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which requires governmental agencies to get a warrant before they can compel online companies to disclose the content of users' communications, wrote Molinari. "Legislation introduced by Senators Leahy and Lee (R-Utah) in the Senate and Representatives Yoder (R-Kan.), Graves (R-Ga.), and Polis (D-Colo.) in the House would achieve that goal. More than 100 companies, trade associations, and consumer groupsand more than 100,000 Americans—have signed on to support this important update to ECPA, which no longer reflects users' reasonable expectations of privacy."

Back in December, after the NSA activities were becoming public and causing great debate around the nation and the world, Google and a group of other technology companies "unveiled a set of government surveillance reform principles that address many of the recent concerns around government surveillance," wrote Molinari. "In Congress, Representative Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Senator Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced legislation—the USA Freedom Act—that would codify many of these principles. As they both noted when introducing this bill, government surveillance programs 'have come at a high cost to Americans' privacy rights, business interests and standing in the international community.'"

Google supports the USA Freedom Act and asks Congress to pass it, she wrote, because it "reflects some of the key recommendations made by the President's Review Group on Intelligence Communications and Technologies as well as the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board."

The Day We Fight Back effort involves a broad group of privacy organizations, businesses and other groups that are conducting a day of activism to protest the NSA's surveillance activities. Groups that are participating include the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, Access, Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Free Press, BoingBoing, Reddit, Mozilla and ThoughtWorks, according to organizers.

David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, an Internet freedom organization with more than 1.5 million members, said in a statement that "more than 20,000 calls have been placed to Congress already this morning" by participants to denounce the "NSA's intrusion into our privacy. Winning this fight is going to require a broad coalition of individuals, organizations, and businesses, one that is coalescing around today's activism and will persist until we win the fight against mass suspicion-less surveillance."

When the NSA domestic cyber-spying scandal first started to unfold in June 2013, it was unclear that the snooping would reach out and touch the world's top technology vendors. But as the scandal emerged from some of the many secret documents leaked by former government contractor Edward Snowden, it turned out that the surveillance reached beyond phone intercepts to hacks into Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and others, according to earlier eWEEK reports.

In November 2013, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt harshly criticized the NSA as the allegations and reports first began surfacing about the NSA's surveillance of Google data.