updated 02:10 am EDT, Fri August 9, 2013
Representatives from tech firms and civil liberties groups come together
One of the "fathers of the Internet," Vint Cerf -- along with a cadre of representatives from tech companies, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and AT&T chief Randall Stephenson -- met with President Obama on Thursday in a closed-door meeting about government surveillance. This follows a similar meeting earlier in the week that included tech-industry lobbyists and civil liberties groups, including the ACLU and Electronic Privacy Information Center. The meetings are part of an effort by the administration to promote discussion and information about government surveillance programs.
Thursday's meeting, which President Obama is said to have attended personally, centered on privacy issues such as online tracking of consumers as well as the controversy of the recently-revealed extent of NSA spying and monitoring programs. The earlier meeting had been attended by the Information Technology Industry Council, TechNet and TechAmerica -- lobbying organizations that represent both tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo as well as defense contractors. The civil liberties groups were also in attendance at the first meeting, which took place on Tuesday and was handled by the President's chief of staff and general counsel.
"This is one of a number of discussions the administration is having with experts and stakeholders in response to the President's directive to have a national dialogue about how to best protect privacy in a digital era," Politico quoted an unnamed administration aide saying, "including how to respect privacy while defending our national security." The group also included representatives from the Center for Democracy and Technology and Public Knowledge, which advocate for greater online privacy.
Groups such as the ACLU and EFF have shellacked and even sued the administration over the revelations brought forth by the disclosure of previously-secret NSA monitoring programs that effectively store and scour all modern communications, as revealed by former NSA system administrator Edward Snowden. None of the attendees of the meeting have commented on anything said during the meeting. The various programs exposed by Snowden were begun under the Bush administration but continue under Obama, who has vigorously defended them as being both misunderstood and supervised by elected officials.
However, critics charge that the entire supervision process is handled by secret courts, governed by secret laws, and that Congress has its hands tied through classified briefings that can't be verified independently. The shadow of being potentially held responsible for any security incidents has kept Congress from better regulating the system and making it more transparent, opponents charge. The administration has insisted that the program is largely focused on foreign threats and doesn't compromise civil liberties, but offers no evidence that can be verified to support those claims.
Democrats in Congress have tried to add new checks and balances to federal surveillance programs, which they call ripe for misuse. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) has offered legislation that would require a "public interest" advocate to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court, and change the judge selection process to ensure more diversity in judicial philosophy on the court. "The purpose of the debate is to make sure we have both liberty and security," Blumenthal told students during a speech at Harvard. "Trust and credibility depend on the appearance of fairness and accountability. My fear is that some of those agencies and institutions are in peril of losing it."