December 11, 2013 5:02 pm

Big tech and the white heat of hypocrisy

We write as concerned billionaires. . . the US tech groups’ open letter to Barack Obama

Leading US tech companies, including Google, Facebook and LinkedIn, have written an open letter to Barack Obama and Congress lamenting the scale of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programmes and urging better policy on the widespread data-harvesting that jeopardises public trust in technology.

The Financial Times secured access to the fictional first draft:

Dear Mr President,

We write as concerned billionaires to voice our anxiety at the summer’s revelations of worldwide government surveillance practices. We recognise that governments have a duty to protect their citizens but we also feel that the balance has now tipped too far, to the point where it now threatens our business model.

We are hearing calls for national data centres to prevent the transfer of information to other countries. This runs counter to the principles of the worldwide web, which clearly state that regional hubs are created only for tax purposes.

Citizens are clear that while they are happy for benign outfits such as ours to harvest every personal detail of their lives, they are very uncomfortable at this information being passed to Chuck Hagel.

Your intervention is therefore undermining the adoption of new technology and consequently the forward march of humanity. Had this happened five years ago there might have been no Instagram. The word “selfie” might not have been in the dictionary and world leaders might have had to listen to the eulogies at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.

As you know, most of our services are provided free to the consumer in exchange for a few trifles of data such as their address, age, occupation, friends, credit card details and access to the content of every email they have ever written. We use this to offer them valuable information to improve and help them organise their lives. Facebook, for example, has served us a number of extremely useful advertisements with advice on how to reduce unwanted belly fat. Naturally we understand your desire to thwart acts of terrorism but 18 per cent of US adult deaths are due to obesity-related illnesses, so your actions are actually endangering American lives.

You may counter that we are collecting far more data than you but we allow users to opt in to our data-collection. Our terms are all clearly spelt out in our 122-point terms of use and subsidiary annexes.

Users agree to those terms in exchange for wonderful services such as Gmail, LinkedIn job search and Facebook’s friend search. All they get from governments are healthcare, education and a standing army.

Our services have also helped point lonely men towards a site that will help them find happiness with an Asian bride. The news that you collect metadata on acquaintances can only lead to a reduction in friend requests or content-sharing with disastrous consequences. Without the right data our users searching for love may be offered a Polish plumber instead. Worse still, those in dire need of a plumber may end up with a Thai girlfriend.

Without the confidence of our users we may see them heading towards less reliable services. Already in the past three months we have noticed a statistically significant reduction in the number of jihadis prepared to give us access to their location data. This makes it very difficult for Google Now, our calendar and location-based service, to advise on the best route to a major terrorist target and suggest a convenient coffee shop en route.

Research suggests users will stop sharing details if they think it might lead to the security services snatching them off the street and flying them to Bahrain for interrogation.

Where data must be collected for security reasons we believe there must be absolute transparency, not least about the fact that we did not want to help you. Potential terror suspects must also be able to adjust their privacy settings to ensure, for example, that their information can only be seen by friends. They may also wish to restrict access to intelligence agencies on their own continent that agree not to share the information with aggressive third parties such as the CIA.

This could all lead to non-US sites eroding American tech dominance. Are we really prepared to cede the key strategic battleground of contextualised advertising to the Chinese?

Remember: the internet is for everyone, even if it is particularly handy for us. Don’t let governments ruin it.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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