President Obama and several top advisers met with six technology executives at the White House on Friday afternoon amid fears that National Security Agency spying is undermining one of the nation’s most vital industries, especially in lucrative overseas markets.
The global backlash to revelations about NSA surveillance has become a top concern for high-tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which are battling allegations that American firms are more vulnerable to U.S. government spying and pay insufficient attention to consumer privacy.
While the White House presented the session as “part of a continuing dialogue on issues surrounding intelligence, technology and privacy,” the meeting did not satisfy all of those participating.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who expressed frustration before the meeting, left dissatisfied, according to a company statement.
“While the US Government has taken helpful steps to reform its surveillance practices, these are simply not enough,” Facebook spokeswoman Jodi Seth said in a statement issued at the conclusion of the 90-minute White House meeting. “People around the globe deserve to know that their information is secure and Facebook will keep urging the US Government to be more transparent about its practices and more protective of civil liberties.”
Zuckerberg called the president last week to vent his frustrations after a news report said the NSA had mimicked Facebook pages to trick intelligence targets into downloading malicious software.
The story, which the NSA has disputed, first appeared in the Intercept, a news organization started this year by Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay; Glenn Greenwald, a former reporter for the British newspaper the Guardian; and others.
“When our engineers work tirelessly to improve security, we imagine we’re protecting you against criminals, not our own government,” Zuckerberg wrote in a blog post on March 13, the day after the news report. “The US government should be the champion for the internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst.”
Friday’s meeting — which also included executives from Google, Netflix, Dropbox, Palantir and Box — was one of a series organized by the White House in recent months to discuss NSA and privacy issues with business executives, foreign leaders and privacy advocates.
Presidential adviser John D. Podesta, who is leading an inquiry into “big data” and privacy, attended the Friday session. He told The Washington Post this week that he had met with more than 200 corporate and government officials, as well as academic experts and civil liberties advocates, on these issues in the past few weeks alone.
“We strongly back a free and open Internet, and we don’t want to see the Internet balkanized,” Podesta said. “But we also have to listen to and provide reassurance to the public that their privacy will be protected and rights won’t be abused. That is what this scoping exercise is all about.”
In addition to Podesta, the meeting included Jeff Zients, director of the National Economic Council; Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama; and Rick Ledgett, deputy director of the National Security Agency.
The financial costs of the NSA revelations, though impossible to quantify fully, have been in the many billions of dollars, according to the technology industry, which has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy during years of overall sluggishness.
The cloud computing industry, which provides remote computer services to customers worldwide, has been hit particularly hard by the backlash to the NSA revelations.
Because so much of what transpires online is deeply personal, issues of privacy and trust are particularly sensitive. U.S. laws — especially when compared with those in Europe and other parts of the world — provide little protection for consumers against collection of data for commercial purposes, compounding concerns overseas about American companies.
“U.S. companies are paying an enormous price for the failure of the White House to do anything on the privacy problem,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group based in Washington.
Obama has been playing defense on the issue of surveillance since June, when The Washington Post and the Guardian began detailing how the NSA collects information across the world about those who e-mail, video chat, browse the Web, talk on cellphones or use the Internet in almost any other way. Those reports, as well as the one last week in the Intercept, relied on documents provided by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Anger over these revelations, analysts said, was a key factor in the Obama administration’s announcement last week that it would relinquish the last vestiges of U.S. control over the governance of the Internet, which grew from a Defense Department program that dated to the 1960s. U.S. officials denied there was any connection in the timing of their decision.
Obama has another major political moment coming March 28, the date by which he has promised to “transition” away from the NSA’s program for collecting U.S. phone records in bulk. Obama promised the change in a speech on Jan. 17, but the details of his plan have not been revealed.
In addition to Zuckerberg, the executives at the meeting were Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and the following chief executives: Reed Hastings of Netflix, Drew Houston of Dropbox, Alexander Karp of Palantir and Aaron Levie of Box.
Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella received invitations but were unable to attend because of conflicts, people familiar with the planning for the session at the White House said.
Washington lobbyists for many of these companies said Friday that their firms have been struggling with the economic costs stemming from the surveillance revelations. The White House indicated that Obama is struggling to balance competing demands.
“The president reiterated his Administration’s commitment to taking steps that can give people greater confidence that their rights are being protected while preserving important tools that keep us safe,” the White House said in a two-paragraph summary of the meeting.
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