NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A coalition of seven U.S.-based Internet companies -- AOL (AOL), Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), LinkedIn (LNKD), Microsoft (MSFT), Twitter (TWTR) and Yahoo (YHOO) -- has signed off on a letter, posted at a new Web site, demanding limits to government surveillance of the Internet.
It could be those companies are tilting at windmills. Or it could be they have just opened Pandora's box.
The fact is that all these companies depend for their very existence on monitoring what people do online, just as the government does, and using that data for their own purposes, just as the government does.
The difference is that these companies are monitoring what you do for the purpose of selling ads, while the government is monitoring what you do to fight what it calls the threats of terrorism and crime.The letter demands reform based on five principles:
- Limiting government's authority to collect users' information -- They don't want the government doing bulk data collection. Bulk data collection is their business.
- Oversight and accountability -- They demand that courts be involved in the collection and use of private information, something they've resisted for their own collection and use of data for years.
- Transparency about government demands -- They want the government's demands for data to be published. But they collect all the data they can, routinely, and seldom even mention it.
- Respecting the free flow of information -- Governments should allow free transfer of data and not determine where infrastructure will live, the companies say. They would rather make this decision themselves and control censorship themselves as well.
- Avoiding conflicts among governments -- This may be the key point. The companies don't like being caught between the demands of various governments, and want a "mutual legal assistance treaty" to control such actions and to hold them harmless.
It should be noted that no major Internet companies based outside the U.S. signed on to this letter. Some of these companies have already taken action, encrypting users' data against government snoops , but they have the keys to that encryption, and when government demands those keys they will have to comply with the demand. The results of this battle will define questions of both business and liberty in the 21st century, and that those questions are being raised is the only good news that I can see here. At the time of publication, the author held shares in Google and Yahoo. Follow @DanaBlankenhorn This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.