A lobbying push by Apple Inc. (AAPL:US), Facebook Inc. (FB:US) and other companies has won bipartisan support for legislation to let them say how they handle sensitive requests for surveillance data from the National Security Agency.
A bill introduced today by U.S. Representative James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican, and Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, would allow companies to disclose how often they turn over customer data to the U.S. government.
“It is time for serious and meaningful reforms so we can restore confidence in our intelligence community,” Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement today. The bill also would bar NSA from collecting bulk phone records on millions of Americans and place additional privacy controls on surveillance programs, according to the text.
Facebook, Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO:US), Twitter Inc. and LinkedIn Corp. (LNKD:US) all listed lobbying expenses on legislation related to NSA demands for data for the first time in third-quarter reports submitted to Congress.
Those companies, as well as Google Inc. (GOOG:US), have been lobbying lawmakers and President Barack Obama’s administration since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who is now in Russia on temporary asylum, revealed classified intelligence-gathering programs that collect user information from technology and phone companies. The programs, involving surveillance of American citizens and allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been criticized by some world leaders and led to efforts in Congress to rein in NSA activities.
Facebook, the biggest social network and based in Menlo Park, California, spent $1.4 million lobbying from July 1 to Sept. 30, compared with $980,000 during the same period in 2012.
Technology companies lobbied on a range of issues related to privacy, taxes and cybersecurity. Exact amounts aren’t provided for NSA surveillance lobbying in the reports.
For Apple, based in Cupertino, California, 2013’s third quarter marked the first time it lobbied on government data requests. The company spent $970,000 in the period, compared to $460,000 in the timeframe last year, the company’s filing said.
Google and LinkedIn, both based in Mountain View, California, spent $3.37 million and $30,000, respectively, lobbying last quarter, while Yahoo, based in Sunnyvale, California, spent $630,000. Google and Yahoo spent more in 2012 and LinkedIn’s expenditures stayed the same.
“There’s been a false impression that companies have been overly cooperative with surveillance requests,” Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a Washington nonprofit, said in a phone interview. More transparency “will allow companies to show what they have been doing is more limited than some have assumed and, that when appropriate, they have challenged and pushed back.”
Snowden revealed a classified program called Prism under which the NSA uses court orders to compel companies to turn over user and account data to support counterterrorism operations.
The companies are forbidden from revealing what they do and don’t give the agency, and some European government officials are proposing new restrictions on how data about their citizens can be used and shared with the U.S.
Jodi Seth, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the company is “seeking to be as transparent as possible about government data requests we receive to foster an informed debate about whether government security programs adequately balance privacy interests and public safety.”
Spokesmen Kristin Huguet of Apple, Niki Fenwick of Google and Doug Madey of LinkedIn referred to previous comments made by their companies. Sarah Meron, a Yahoo spokeswoman, declined to comment.
U.S. technology companies are concerned they could lose business at home and abroad after revelations that they provide the NSA data about their users, according to an Oct. 24 letter from five trade groups.
“Companies should be permitted to disclose the number of government orders for information made under specific legal authorities,” said the letter signed by such groups as TechNet, a Washington-based association that represents Apple, Facebook and Google, and the Software & Information Industry Association, also based in Washington.
The letter, which was sent to a citizens’ advisory board reviewing the U.S. surveillance programs, said companies should also be able to disclose “the number of individuals or accounts, including accounts of business customers, impacted by the orders received as well as the type of information that is sought by such orders.”
The companies would be allowed to report an estimate of government orders they receive under the bill from Sensenbrenner and Leahy, according to a summary from Sensenbrenner’s office.
The bill would permit them to report the number of orders they have complied with and the number of users or accounts affected by government demands.
The legislation has more than 70 co-sponsors so far in the House, including those with politics as diverse as Representatives Darrell Issa, a California Republican, and John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat. It has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate, including Republican Mike Lee of Utah, a favorite of Tea Party activists, and Democrat Richard Durbin of Illinois, who serves in the leadership.
Obama’s administration opposes allowing the companies to reveal data about government orders. The Department of Justice said in a Sept. 30 court filing that allowing the companies to publish statistics on surveillance orders “would be invaluable to our adversaries.”
“If our adversaries know which platforms the government does not surveil, they can communicate over those platforms when, for example, planning a terrorist attack or the theft of state secrets,” the Justice filing said.
It also isn’t clear if the companies have support of senior lawmakers such as Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee.
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