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Why The Tech Industry Should Be Furious About NSA's Over Surveillance

from the it'll-hit-their-bottom-lines dept

We've already pointed out how some tech companies, including Yahoo!, Google and Twitter have fought back against overly intrusive attempts at government surveillance (though, they often lose), and there's been some discussion about how these companies are fighting to protect their users' privacy. There's a further reason why all of the tech industry should be speaking out against NSA surveillance. Beyond just being the right thing to do to protect your users' privacy, it's likely that it also improves their bottom line. We're already starting to see the fallout from the revelations of the NSA being able to scoop up data from various tech companies, and it's going to be harmful to their revenue.

Right after the initial NSA leaks came out, David Kirkpatrick quickly wrote about how the Obama administration appeared to be sacrificing the US internet industry in a weak attempt at trying to increase security (despite no evidence that it's actually done that). The global implications of the NSA spying aren't hard to figure out -- especially when looking at how many people around the globe use these services:
It's quite possible that Obama has undermined the effectiveness and attractiveness for political speech and protest of what have been the most potent communications tools for activism in history. Political and commercial opponents of the U.S. in every country as well as governments themselves will likely alert citizens to the potential that U.S. companies could pass their info back to US authorities. This will seriously conflict with these companies' aim to maintain their platforms as neutral global environments. It could dramatically slow their global growth.

[....] Do we really want to impair such powerful tools for spreading dialogue, political discourse, and U.S. values? Is it worthwhile to impair the extraordinary financial and commercial success of these great flagships for the American economy? Does Obama want Facebook et al just to be seen as tools of American power? That is certainly not the way the average user in Bolivia sees it. They see it as a tool of their own personal power, and they don't want governments interfering with that.
Further, he points out, this will likely drive users to foreign corporations, rather than American ones, as they strive to protect their privacy:
Don't believe there are not alternatives to the U.S. Net collossi. Companies worldwide are already relentlessly working on alternatives. The second largest search service worldwide is China's Baidu, with more than 8% of searches globally at the end of last year according to ComScore. Russia's Yandex is at close to 3%, more than Microsoft's own search product. In social networking, China's Tencent has had a stunning recent success with its WeChat product, which by some counts has over 450 million users worldwide, including many tens of millions outside China. Most major Chinese Internet companies have global ambitions.
Kirkpatrick was focusing more on the consumer side, and the importance of using these tools for open and free communication. But the same issues clearly impact the business side as well. As CFO.com recently, noted, companies are gong to be a lot less trusting of US-based cloud computing companies because of these leaks. Exposing the key info to governments is a real risk:
At the end of the day, if you have mission critical data and information in the possession of a third party service provider - Cloud or otherwise – the assumption that your provider will be in full control over their environments may be drawn unto doubt. As a CFO, it is prudent to consider your next steps very carefully to ensure that your intellectual property and trade secrets do not become the assets of others.
Given the suggestions that the US government has used this surveillance as a form of economic espionage, these fears seem quite well grounded. Foreign companies are now going to be a lot less interested in using the services of American companies.

And this isn't a theoretical problem either. Sweden just issued a ruling that bars the public sector from using Google's cloud services. Meanwhile, India is already telling companies that they need to setup local servers rather than make use of US servers if they want to do business in India.

This issue is important on a number of levels, but technology companies, who rely on a global audience, should be standing up and loudly protesting the NSA's broad surveillance, because it's going to hit their bottom lines hard. The administration and the NSA are directly making it difficult for US internet companies to be global enterprises, at a time when that's exactly what we need. Is it really worth sacrificing one of the few growing and dynamic industries that the US has these days, based on some vague and unproven claims that the government "needs" all of this info? It seems like a massive cost for almost no benefit.

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  1. icon
    Suzanne Lainson (profile), 16 Jun 2013 @ 6:48pm

    Re: Re: Letting private companies do whatever they want

    This is why I am in favor of greater (and smarter) regulation of business practices. We have had a few periods of lax or no regulation of business in our history, and the result is always the same: businesses become abusive, predatory, and dangerous.

    We agree. I am wary of an "anything goes as long as it is a private company" mentality. That's why I keep posting the extent to which profit drives monitoring and data collection/sales in this country.

    I'm still a supporter of the concept of government. I just want it to be better government. In my mind, government can range from local co-ops to global organizations. So I don't believe "government" is inherently good or bad.

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