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Showdown over spying could net privacy points for tech industry

May 21, 2015, 3:56 PM UTC
Photograph by Frederick Florin — AFP/Getty Images

Score one for irony. The same Silicon Valley giants that regularly gobble and abuse consumer data are now poised to take credit for a significant privacy victory in Washington.

The victory would come via the passage of the USA Freedom Act, a bill to restrict government surveillance that will hit a political crescendo this weekend. If it succeeds, many civil liberties advocates will be obliged to thank the likes of Google and Facebook, which lent their lobbying heft to stop the snooping.

This raises the question: how did these data-dependent firms get privacy religion in first place? The answer, according to one civil liberties lawyer, is a rare mix of public outrage and corporate self-interest.

“It’s a nice confluence of business pressure and public pressure to do something,” says Mark Jaycox of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

According to Jaycox, the revelations of Edward Snowden, which showed how the U.S. government slurps up mass amounts of data from tech and phone companies, is leading more consumers to look for ways to mask their activities online. This could prove a headache for companies that depend on data to sell advertising. Meanwhile, the Snowden affair also threatens the tech industry overseas, where countries have threatened to shun U.S. cloud computing providers.

Taken together, this situation could create a fatal loss of trust by the public and corporate customers, and is why Silicon Valley is supporting privacy reforms like never before. In recent months, Jaycox says, big tech companies have gone from making vague statements to lending loud and explicit support to measures like the USA Freedom Act.

If the bill passes, it will thus be not only a victory for civil libertarians, but a PR coup for the companies of well.

For now, the fate of the USA Freedom Act is up in the air. The outcome will be determined by a high-stakes poker game underway in the Senate where supporters are using the impending expiration of portions of the Patriot Act as leverage against security hardliners, who want to block the bill. The end game is now set for Saturday, according to reports.

If the bill does pass, however, its impact will be modest. (The law would slightly limit the mass collection of U.S. phone records, while also bringing more transparency to America’s secret spy court, and checking the use of controversial National Security Letters.) More sweeping reform will have to wait for another day.

But for companies like Facebook and Google, the passage of the USA Freedom Act may be just enough to reassure nervous consumers and overseas customers that the country is at least capable of taking steps to protect privacy.