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Tech giants call for limits on government surveillance

Joe Sohm | Photodisc | Getty Images

Eight prominent technology companies, bruised by revelations of government spying on their customers' data and scrambling to repair the damage to their reputations, are mounting a public campaign to urge President Obama and Congress to set new limits on government surveillance.

On Monday the companies, led by Google and Microsoft, presented a plan to regulate online spying and urged the United States to lead a worldwide effort to restrict it. They accompanied it with an open letter, in the form of full-page ads in national newspapers, including The New York Times,and a website detailing their concerns.

(Read more: Google Continues To Buy Its Way Out Of Privacy)

It is the broadest and strongest effort by the companies, often arch rivals, to speak with one voice to pressure the government. The tech industry, whose billionaire founders and executives are highly sought as political donors, forms a powerful interest group that is increasingly flexing its muscle in Washington.

"It's now in their business and economic interest to protect their users' privacy and to aggressively push for changes," said Trevor Timm, an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation." The N.S.A. mass-surveillance programs exist for a simple reason: cooperation with the tech and telecom companies. If the tech companies no longer want to cooperate, they have a lot of leverage to force significant reform."

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The political push by the technology companies opens a third front in their battle against government surveillance, which has escalated with recent revelations about government spying without the companies' knowledge. The companies have also been making technical changes to try to thwart spying and have been waging a public-relations campaign to convince users that they are protecting their privacy.

"People won't use technology they don't trust," Brad Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, said in a statement. "Governments have put this trust at risk, and governments need to help restore it."

Apple, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, AOL and Linkedin joined Google and Microsoft in saying that they believed in governments' right to protect their citizens. But, they said, the spying revelations that began last summer with leaks of National Security Agency materials by Edward J. Snowden showed that "the balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual."

The Obama administration has already begun a review of N.S.A. procedures in reaction to public outrage. The results of that review could be presented to the White House as soon as this week.

"Having done an independent review and brought in a whole bunch of folks — civil libertarians and lawyers and others — to examine what's being done, I'll be proposing some self-restraint on the N.S.A., and you know, to initiate some reforms that can give people more confidence," Mr. Obama said Thursday on the MSNBC program "Hardball."

While the internet companies fight to maintain authority over their customers' data, their business models depend on collecting the same information that the spy agencies want, and they have long cooperated with the government to some extent by handing over data in response to legal requests.

The new principles outlined by the companies contain little information and few promises about their own practices, which privacy advocates say contribute to the government's desire to tap into the companies' data systems.

(Read more: What companies are doing with your intimate social data)

"The companies are placing their users at risk by collecting and retaining so much information," said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. "As long as this much personal data is collected and kept bythese companies, they are always going to be the target of governmentcollection efforts."

For instance, internet companies store email messages, search queries, payment details and other personal information to provide online services and show personalized ads.

They are trying to blunt the spying revelations' effects on their businesses. Each disclosure risks alienating users, and foreign governments are considering laws that would discourage their citizens from using services from American internet companies. The cloud computing industry could lose $180 billion, or a quarter of its revenue, by 2016, according to Forrester Research.

(Read more: Why Online Privacy Is a Big Oxymoron)

Telecom companies, which were not included in the proposal to Congress, have had a closer working relationship with the government than the internet companies, such as longstanding partnerships to hand over customer information. While the internet companies have published so-called transparency reports about government requests, for example, the telecoms have not.

"For the phone companies," said Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia studying the internet and the law, "help with federal spying is a longstanding tradition with roots in the Cold War. It's another area where there's a split between old tech and new tech — the latter taking a much more libertarian position."

The new surveillance principles, the internet companies said, should include limiting governments' authority to collect users' information, setting up a legal system of oversight and accountability for that authority, allowing the companies to publish the number and nature of the demands for data, ensuring that users' online data can be stored in different countries and establishing a frame work to govern data requests between countries.

(Read more: NSA may havepenetrated internet cable links)

In a statement, Larry Page, Google's co-founder and chief executive, criticized governments for the "apparent wholesale collection of data, in secret and without independent oversight." He added, "It's time for reform and we urge the U.S. government to lead the way."

In their open letter, the companies maintain they are fighting for their customers' privacy. "We are focused on keeping users' data secure," the letter said,"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."

The global principles outlined by the companies make no specific mention of any country and call on "the world's governments to address the practices and laws regulating government surveillance of individuals and access to their information." But the open letter to American officials specifically cites the United States Constitution as the guidepost for new restrictions on government surveillance.

(Read more: Google mulled ditching US after NSA scandal)

Chief among the companies' proposals is a demand to write "sensible limitations" on the ability of government agencies to compel internet companies to disclose user data, forbidding the wholesale vacuuming of user information.

"Governments should limit surveillance to specific known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of internet communications," the companies said.

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