Obama urged to act 'aggressively' to reform NSA by tech CEOs
Executives from Facebook, Twitter, Google and others meet at White House
U.S. President Barack Obama hosted executives from leading tech companies at the White House this morning for a discussion on the troubled government website for purchasing health insurance, on job creation and other issues, but the CEOs pressed the president to reform the National Security Agency's surveillance programs.
The list of attendees who had a private meeting with Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden included the CEOs of Apple, Twitter, Etsy, Netflix, Dropbox, Yahoo and Comcast, and executives from Facebook, Microsoft, Google, LinkedIn and others.
These firms weren’t involved in building the healthcare.gov website, but Obama wanted to meet with them anyway to talk about it. The website, a signature piece of the Affordable Care Act, allows Americans to shop online for health insurance plans, but it was plagued with technical difficulties when it launched.
Some of the issues have finally been smoothed out, but Obama is still retaining outside help to oversee the fixes. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced Tuesday that former Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene will take over from Jeffrey Zients, who was recruited to help in October.
The tech executives weren't as keen to talk at length about the health-care website, however, as they were to raise their concerns in person about the NSA's data collection activities. The agency's spying practices were exposed by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden in June and the companies are worried about trust being broken with their users.
Obama urged to act 'aggressively' on NSA
National security "and the economic impacts of unauthorized intelligence disclosures" were also on the agenda and were discussed, according to the White House.
"We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform," read a one-line statement from the attendees after the meeting.
Eight tech companies recently launched a public campaign calling for governments around the world, but the U.S. in particular, to reform their surveillance programs.
The companies banded together and published an open letter in major newspapers and online that said they understand governments need to protect the safety and security of citizens, but that current laws and regulations need an overhaul.
They want an end to bulk collection of user data, more transparency about the scope of surveillance programs, and stronger checks and balances in the courts when governments seek to compel companies to hand over information.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in the letter that recent revelations about government surveillance programs have “shaken the trust of our users,” and that the U.S. government must act to restore confidence of citizens around the world.
The executives had the chance Tuesday to deliver their concerns and proposals for reform to the president directly during the meeting. The White House said Obama heard the message.
"The president made clear his belief in an open, free, and innovative internet and listened to the group’s concerns and recommendations, and made clear that we will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review of signals intelligence programs," the White House said in a readout of the meeting.
The White House gathering comes a day after a major court ruling that described the NSA’s operations as “almost Orwellian,” and said they might be unconstitutional.
A federal judge ruled that the practices are likely unconstitutional and Judge Richard J. Leon said he could not imagine a more indiscriminate and arbitrary invasion than the systematic collection and retention of personal data that the NSA undertakes.
The White House referred questions about the ruling to the Department of Justice, which has said it is reviewing the ruling and believes the NSA's programs are constitutional.
The backlash that followed Snowden's leaked documents revealing the agency's activities prompted Obama to ask for a review of the country's intelligence-gathering system.
An expert group convened to conduct part of the review provided a report to the president on Friday. It contains more than 40 recommendations and is expected to be made public in January.