All companies doing business everywhere -- including in the United States -- should commit to uphold and defend the free expression and privacy rights of their users for the same reasons we expect other types of companies agree to respect the health and safety of the people who purchase and consume their products. Companies should be required to demonstrate that commitment by reporting publicly not only on how they gather and retain user information, but also how and under what circumstances they share that information with governments as well as other companies. Only then can people have a clear sense of how power is being exercised over their digital lives and know whom to hold accountable when that power is abused.
But GOFA, by targeting corporate sales and government relationships in the worst-case countries while skirting the much more inconvenient question of how companies facilitate government abuse of surveillance and censorship powers in democracies and close U.S. allies, completely sidesteps the root of the problem: the main market drivers whose demand for surveillance technology is actually shaping and funding the development of these technologies.
Make no mistake: American tech companies are up to their eyeballs in bad behavior. Despite industry and government efforts to keep the media in the dark about a traveling trade show for surveillance technology known as the "Wiretappers' Ball," recent media reports have revealed the extent to which American corporate innovations in surveillance technology are driven by U.S. government demand. And the U.S. government is by far those companies' biggest customer.
According to the Washington Post, at last year's trade show just outside Washington in Northern Virginia, 35 federal agencies as well as representatives from state and local law enforcement mixed with representatives of 43 countries. Despite the Obama administration's proclaimed commitment to Internet freedom, the executive branch of the U.S. government makes no effort to be honest or transparent with the American public about the types of surveillance technologies it is sourcing and purchasing, what capabilities these technologies have, or which other governments are purchasing these technologies.
What this means for American democracy -- let alone for the democratic aspirations of people anywhere else -- became abundantly clear this past Sunday, April 1, when the New York Times reported on a detailed investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union that uncovered widespread use of cell-phone tracking technology by police departments around the country in non-emergency situations without court orders or warrants.
Meanwhile, as GOFA moves forward, Congress is considering several cybersecurity bills that would authorize Internet service providers and other companies not only to monitor private communications passing over their networks, but also to share private communications with the National Security Agency and other federal entities or with any other agency of the federal government designated by the Department of Homeland Security -- and with less due process and judicial oversight than ever before. While acknowledging that cybersecurity is a legitimate goal, groups focused on the defense and protection of Internet users' rights, including the Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have expressed deep-seated concerns about the extent to which these bills open the door even wider for civil liberties violations.
GOFA's supporters argue that one has to start somewhere and that focusing on the relationship between U.S. companies and authoritarian dictatorships is the best way to obtain bipartisan consensus to pass legislation. That is no doubt true. But if the American people continue to allow the U.S. government and American industry to forge increasingly unaccountable and opaque relationships around the exchange and use of citizens' private information, the damage will extend well beyond American democracy and civil liberties. The business norms and technological innovations born of such opaque and unaccountable relationships will keep dictators supplied with handy tools for decades to come.