During the past few days, the news meda has been on fire with reports about the Reform Government Surveillance (RGS) website. Eight technology companies jointly developed the website.
I visited the RGS website. The first thing I noticed was an international focus. An excerpt from the RGS site's introduction:
"The undersigned companies believe that it is time for the world’s governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information. While the undersigned companies understand that governments need to take action to protect their citizens’ safety and security, we strongly believe that current laws and practices need to be reformed."
The eight companies proposed five principles upon which international reforms should be based:
- Limiting Governments' Authority To Collect Information
- Oversight and Accountability
- Transparency About Government Demands
- Respecting The Free Flow of Information
- Avoiding Conflicts Among Governments
Only after reading all of the above, does the RGS site present its letter to officials in the U.S. government. The letter:
"Dear Mr. President and Members of Congress,
We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer’s revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide. The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual — rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.
For our part, we are focused on keeping users’ data secure — deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks and by pushing back on government requests to ensure that they are legal and reasonable in scope.
We urge the US to take the lead and make reforms that ensure that government surveillance efforts are clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight. To see the full set of principles we support, visit ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com
AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, Yahoo"
After reading the RGS site, I had several reactions.
First, where are the other companies involved? None of the above eight companies achieved their current successes without assistance, joint marketing, and/or contracts with telecommunications firms (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, Sprint,e tc.), mobile device and smart phone manufacturers (e.g., HTC, LG, Samsung), and banks. Mobile payment services require banks. Plus, nowhere in the site did I see any content or a link encouraging other companies to join the RGS group.
Second, the RGS site's proposed principle (#3) about transparency isn't new. Six of the eight RGS companies already signed a letter in July 2013 arguing for more transparency.
Third, the RGS companies want their to be limits upon government surveillance (e.g., tracking, monitoring, data collection), but no limits on their activities to do the same. In his ValleyWag blog, Sam Biddle summarized the letter in the RGS site as a, "half-assed outrage letter to the NSA." Seems about right. Most of the companies made it easy for the NSA to collect consumers' information because they'd already collected it and yielded to government queries to provide consumer data. Plus, some include NSA code in their products, which subsequently caused some governments to react negatively.
Fourth, the RGS site's proposed principle (#2) about accountability seems a little disingenuous. At least two of the eight companies (e.g., Microsoft and Yahoo) include forced arbitraton clauses in their terms for consumers. This limits consumers' rights and makes it difficult to hold a company responsibility when its products or services harm consumers. How can you argue for governments to be accountable when you avoid accountability yourself?
Fifth, the following question occurred to me: what next? Nowhere in the website did I see any content about next steps. What will the eight RGS companies do next -- as a group orindividually? What you do means a lot more to me than what you said in a static website. A missed opportunity: content and links in the RGS website to sollicit other companies to join them.
After reading the RGS site, I felt as though I had just experienced a public relations stunt... fluff and not much substance. To quote an old-school television commercial: where's the beef? And, if you really care about consumers' privacy rights, then design your programs based upon opt-in and not opt-out.
What is your opinion of the RGS site?