Leaders at several major tech companies, including handlers of social media and Internet services, criticized the U.S. government this week for its ironfisted treatment of companies that repeatedly have requested permission to publicly reveal the scale of the National Security Agency’s court-sanctioned surveillance measures.
Speaking in San Francisco at this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference — a major event that brings together industry innovators and potential investors — Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said the government’s approach to deterrence has been simple.
“Releasing classified information is treason, and you are incarcerated,” said Mayer.
That response came during a public Q&A, when someone asked Mayer why tech companies have been complaining in general terms about the NSA, but won’t release any information that reveals the nature the government’s demands. Yahoo has gone before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the past, suing in 2007 for permission to publish information about NSA spy requests. But predictably, the government prevailed.
“When you lose and you don’t comply, it’s treason,” Mayer said.
Yahoo and Facebook have filed fresh lawsuits in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, arguing that being muzzled by the NSA — with the entire world watching — isn’t just unConstitutional; it’s killing their business.
“Yahoo has been unable to engage fully in the debate about whether the government has properly used its powers, because the government has placed a prior restraint on Yahoo’s speech,” Yahoo argues in its filing. “Yahoo’s inability to respond to news reports has harmed its reputation and has undermined its business not only in the United States but worldwide. Yahoo cannot respond to such reports with mere generalities.”
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg resorted to generalities in his public comments at the Disrupt conference, but reinforced the Yahoo CEO’s assertion that the government is hurting American business and eroding faith in U.S. tech, even as it forces companies to keep quiet about its warrantless, illegal surveillance practices. “Frankly, I think the government blew it,” he said.
“The morning after this [Snowden scandal] started breaking, a bunch of people were asking them [the government] what they thought,” he said. “[They said] ‘don’t worry, we’re not spying on any Americans.’”
“Wonderful, that’s really helpful for companies trying to work with people around the world. Thanks for going out there and being clear. I think that was really bad.”