Silicon Valley’s Control Culture Is Fighting Back

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Photo: NSA via Getty Images, David McNew/Getty Images

Last night, a murderer's row of American tech companies — AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo — released a highly coordinated campaign designed to thwart the expansion of the surveillance state, and calling for an end to the kinds of mass data-collection efforts that Edward Snowden's leaks revealed.

The campaign, accompanied by a website, reformgovernmentsurveillance.com, isn't breaking much new policy ground. The tech companies' proposals are similar to what's in the bills put forth by congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner and Patrick Leahy earlier this fall, albeit with more heavily lawyered language. The giants of tech aren't asking for an end to electronic surveillance altogether – it's not stopgovernmentsurveillance.com – but it is a significant development in that it marks the first time these companies are all working together toward a specific policy aim.

So, what is that aim, exactly?

I don't think the NSA letter is evidence of Silicon Valley's turn toward small-government libertarianism, even though the language in the letter can sound vaguely Randian. ("The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual.") Instead, I think the campaign is more of a rhetorical muscle flex, designed to remind pro-NSA lawmakers what they're up against.

What the tech companies basically want is:

  1. An end to bulk data collection, and a return to the pre-PRISM status quo (government subpoenas individual data person-by-person, instead of building a giant vacuum to take it all in, then use as needed).
  2. A fairer FISA court process, in which tech companies' lawyers are allowed to argue against the disclosure of information.
  3. A reversal of the rule that tech companies can't talk about what's being asked of them by the NSA or other government agencies.
  4. [Some complicated cross-border legal stuff.]

Of these, I think point No. 3 is the most telling. If you talk to people in the tech industry, many will tell you that the great offense of the PRISM program wasn't that the NSA was collecting information on users of tech services like Google and Facebook. It's that Google and Facebook weren't allowed to fight back, or even indicate publicly that there was a fight going on.

In the tech industry, information control is everything, and companies are used to having lots of it. (Exhibit A: the nondisclosure agreements you have to sign when visiting a tech company's headquarters, even if it's just for lunch with a friend.) This informational advantage is what gave Silicon Valley, for years, a feeling of vague superiority over government. Silicon Valley didn't have a military, or the ability to levy taxes, but it had amazing amounts of information about its users — their locations, shopping preferences, incomes. Even the smallest social network made the U.S. census look like child's play.

Edward Snowden's leaks revealed that the government had a trump card – the legal authority to seize all those fancy data-collection systems, or build backdoors into them, and exploit the information inside for their own aims. They could do all this while requiring Silicon Valley companies to stay silent. If Google or Facebook so much as hinted that their precious data stores were being handed over to the feds, they'd be guilty of a crime. It was the cruelest type of muzzle – a requirement that companies that had spent their whole existence on the right side of information asymmetry were now being forced into total silence.

This is why, in addition to fighting back against the NSA's data-collection efforts by building websites and filing lawsuits, the tech industry is trying to assert its dominance again. The founding myth of the modern tech industry is that it's a kind of supranational sector – one that connects the world, but isn't ruled by any one jurisdiction. And between the lines of last night's letter was a reassertion of that aspiration: We might be based in America, but we're bigger than you.

Meanwhile, the tech companies are building their own turbo-charged data-collection systems, and making sure they're heavily encrypted, to once again claim the upper hand in the information wars. After all, the government can't be allowed to remain on top for long.