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Reform corporate surveillance

by Free Software Foundation Contributions Published on Dec 11, 2013 04:40 PM
The FSF issued the following statement in response to the recent open letter on government surveillance published by AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo.

A group of technology companies, most of whom were implicated in handing user information over to the NSA, recently came together to ask world governments to reform the way they conduct surveillance, according to a set of principles.

Free Software Foundation executive director John Sullivan made the following statement:

"The Free Software Foundation may support one or more of the measures proposed to 'reform government surveillance.' We may end up working with this coalition of companies, after we have had a chance to review and discuss with them what they are advocating. It is encouraging to see recognition from the coalition about one side of the surveillance issue.

However, this problem is not one that can be solved through government reform alone, and there is a danger that focus on these reforms will be flypaper that drains energy for more fundamental change. In addition to policy reform, we must have software reform.

In the US, there were already policies and laws against many revealed spy agency behaviors. These rules are being ignored, or interpreted in ways that maximize surveillance.

The surveillance is actively enabled by these companies' software and technology. Microsoft Windows provides back doors for the NSA. Companies like Google and Facebook build their businesses on the model of consolidating huge amounts of user data, enabling mining of that data, and pulling users away from software run on their own computers to software that is remotely hosted.

Nowhere on the coalition site, or in the open letter, do any of the companies take any responsibility for what is happening. Yet, they have intentionally put their users in a vulnerable position, and exploited them without hesitation. They use copyright, patents, and contracts to insist that the software they publish be proprietary. Or, instead of distributing software at all, they provide it as a hosted 'service.'

Both have the same negative implications for users. The very people using this software are not allowed to see what it is actually doing, nor can they ask for someone else of their choosing to review it on their behalf. The result is a computer that in the end serves only the company who 'owns' the software -- and the governments with whom they choose to share information, or anyone who can find their way to the backdoors.

Furthermore, users need to worry not just about how their information is accessed by the government. They are also entitled to control how it is accessed by corporations. Corporate employees can abuse data in many of the very same ways NSA employees have.

While these companies voice their support for legislative changes they think will address the problem, they continue to drive technology which is on face damaging to everyone's privacy, freedom, and security.

We call on these companies to issue an additional set of principles declaring their support for user control over the software and computers they use. We need a

Until they do so, they can at best be allies of convenience in this effort. We might support their ideas for new laws, but we must be careful not to invest public resources inventing new policy band-aids to cover wounds they are perpetually re-opening. We won't let this distract us from their ongoing culpability, or the need for radical software reform."

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