Snowden did the tech industry a big favor

Big companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google don't want to be government pawns, betraying customer privacy. They can fight back now that it's all in the open.
Written by Larry Seltzer, Contributor

I am not an Edward Snowden fan and I don't even assume that his motives are good, but clearly some good has come from his leaks. One major one is that tech companies are able to fight back against government pressure to give up their customers' private data.

Microsoft made yet another example of this recently when it was revealed that they are resisting US government efforts to force the company to disclose user data stored abroad. In fact, since the Snowden disclosures, the big tech companies have tried hard to make clear that whatever data they disclose to the government they do so under legal order. They have also obtained, in the end as a negotiated settlement, the ability to disclose aggregate data about the number of government requests for data they receive.

As time has gone on, they have gotten bolder about challenging the government. The case of Microsoft protecting data in their Irish datacenter from US orders is one of several cases they have been able to bring in open court, rather than in the secret FISA court. This is both good law and good public relations.

To my mind, the first example of this happening was when, after stories came out about it in 2006, the telephone networks began resisting the NSA requests for bulk metadata and insisted that the government seek warrants. This is how the system of FISA court warrants for that data began.

Since then, we've heard claims that the companies are in bed with the NSA, such as the early claim that the PRISM program allowed the government "direct access" to the companies' servers. These have turned out to be untrue, merely a perverted form of wishful thinking by some who, as a rule, think the worst of everything done by government and corporations.

I've heard some dismiss the telecom companies' actions as mere ass-covering, and it is that, but it's more than that. They were forcing the government to work within the law, whether you like that law or not. None of these companies like betraying their customers' trust. There's no upside in it for them and plenty of risk. Some people seem to think they should have gone further, but such people are not usually the type to advocate that corporations break the law.

I would argue that Microsoft and Google and AT&T and Verizon and Yahoo! and all the rest of them have been bigger victims of the whole data collection scandal than just about anyone, certainly including the people who were surveilled. They have incurred significant legal risk and risk to their reputations, as well as considerable legal and technical expense in order to deal with the whole affair.

Like I said, I'm no Snowden fan. But if I were a lawyer or officer for one of these big tech companies that had been forced to comply in secret with complex data requests of dubious legal authority, I'd be very grateful that he brought it out in the open.

Editorial standards