Companies like Google and Facebook are very much caught in the middle of the current debate about national security and privacy. Press reports have said the companies are required to turn over huge amounts of customer data to government agencies like the National Security Agency, but the companies are often barred from saying anything publicly about the requests they receive.
That's left customers to wonder whether someone is looking over their shoulder when they use Facebook and similar sites.
"Google, Facebook and Microsoft and the rest of the companies are at risk of losing customer trust," says Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. "And I think they're frustrated by their inability to talk directly about these matters with their customers."
Global Users And The Bottom Line
This is an especially big issue in large, growing overseas markets. One of the surveillance programs at issue, known as PRISM, analyzes data collected by U.S. tech companies from foreign users. The European Parliament has expressed serious concerns about the programs.
"We are interested in what is going on," says Manfred Weber, a member of the European Parliament. "Is there really checking of all the emails? Is there really checking of all the Internet traffic? We want to know how it works."
And this could well affect the bottom line at companies like Google. Weber says U.S. surveillance programs appear to give Americans broader privacy protections than non-Americans. European regulators, he says, are especially bothered by this — and it could well affect Google's ability to do business in these markets.
"And when they have the feeling that the American companies are not guaranteeing these standards — couldn't guarantee [them] — then this will be for the long term an influence for the business question," Weber says.
That means companies like Google have a lot at stake in the current debate over surveillance programs. On Tuesday, Google sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking for permission to reveal how often the company turns over customer information to the government. Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook quickly echoed the request. The companies say that releasing this information will dispel the notion that government investigators are given unlimited access to customer data.
Striking A Delicate Balance
Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says he applauds Google's move.
"We've seen in the last week how important it can be for the public to learn not just about the existence of surveillance, but [also] about the scope of the surveillance," he says.
When it comes to government surveillance programs, Wizner adds, Google has been a big advocate of transparency. But he also says Google and the other companies could be doing more.
"It would be nice to see some of these companies going into court and challenging the gag orders that have prevented them from sharing information about national security surveillance," he says. [The ACLU is suing the federal government over the NSA's phone and Internet surveillance program.]
But it's also true that these companies have to strike a delicate balance on surveillance issues. They must show they're willing to cooperate with the government to address legitimate security concerns — they just have to do it without giving their customers the impression someone's watching them every time they go online.