The giants of the tech world are far more likely to be found in court, litigating against each other over patent infringements, than making common cause. But the bottom line can create the unlikeliest of alliances. The open letter to the US President and members of Congress written by eight of the top US tech companies — Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo, AOL and LinkedIn — underscores just how far-reaching the effects of Edward Snowden’s revelations are. The consequences can be seen at two levels, both linked to each other. For private citizens, the US National Security Agency (NSA)’s widespread global spying on digital communications is a violation of the basic rights afforded to them by their Constitutions. For the tech firms that dominate today’s digital landscape, the issue is more macro in nature, affecting their business models and the structure of the Internet itself.
To be reductive, the Internet runs on trust. Nearly every online activity —from email to social media and simply surfing the Internet — entails the individual surrendering large amounts of personal information. He might not be entirely aware of the extent to which he is doing so, but in broad terms, it is nevertheless voluntary. That he is able to do so without putting much thought into it is largely down to two reasons. The first is that this is not a hidden transaction; he accedes to it when he accepts the legal agreement before signing on with any digital service. When companies such as Facebook have stepped over the line, they have faced a swift public backlash and been forced to backtrack. The second is a basic belief in the non-malicious intent of the companies. Certainly, the information used by them will be used for pecuniary gain — Google uses such data to target online ads, for instance — but not to persecute or harm the individual.
There have been instances of both these principles being violated, and tech companies are not unalloyed benevolent entities by any means, but by and large, this compact has survived.
But the NSA’s spying cuts at the roots of that trust. And that means it’s bad for business. One industry group pegged the potential cost at up to $35 billion annually by 2016, while an influential tech research firm pegged it much higher at $180 billion a year. European firms in particular are showing themselves increasingly wary of entrusting their data to US companies. The Cloud Security Alliance which develops security standards for Internet firms stated that 10 per cent of the 207 foreign firms it had surveyed had cancelled a project involving US-based cloud providers, and 56 per cent were less likely to use such providers in the future. And that’s not even getting into the potentially far-reaching consequences of countries like Brazil and Germany fencing in their data flows. Add that to the digital fences already extant in authoritarian states like Russia and China, and the prospect of a Balkanised Internet begins to emerge. This would be disastrous on a number of levels for both individuals and corporations— from stifling innovation and free access to information, to placing curbs on business.
Private citizens and tech companies may have different motivations when it comes to fending off government snooping, but their interests dovetail. That is a rare scenario — and while the battle to curb the NSA’s overreach is liable to be a protracted one with no guarantee of success, the letter is at least a step in the right direction.