It was, from the start, an unusual setting for an official U.S. Senate event. The first sign that Wednesday's session, billed as a roundtable on "The Impact of Mass Surveillance on the Digital Economy," would be an intensely personal one was that the dais, adorned with the U.S. Senate seal, was set up in a Silicon Valley gym. The same gym, in fact, where the session's convener, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) -- Palo Alto High School class of '67 -- long held a school record of leading scorer in basketball.
Wyden, now better known as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, was flanked by executives and lawyers from some of U.S. tech's biggest companies: Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Dropbox. He took the opportunity to slam National Security Agency surveillance work as part of an unacceptable "digital dragnet."
But the hour-long session quickly shifted from talk about the digital economy to the risks posed by government surveillance programs to human-to-human communications.
Google Chairman Eric Schmidt talked of visiting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this summer and spending time in her East German hometown. Merkel, said Schmidt, reflected upon growing up in a surveillance state and pulled out her cellphone. Schmidt recalled the German leader saying, "What are they doing listening to my phone calls with my mother?" That, he added, "is how personal this is."
Of course, the case has frequently been made that the NSA disclosures and news of other law enforcement activities have hurt the ability of U.S. tech companies to compete abroad; Wyden himself cited a study from Forrester Research that found that surveillance concerns could cost U.S. companies a quarter of their foreign revenue by 2016.
And to be sure, there were economic worries in the air. Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith is wrestling with a court order that would require the company to turn over e-mails stored on Microsoft's servers in Ireland to U.S. law enforcement.
But Smith, too, did his best to humanize what's at stake. "The fundamental issue is pretty straightforward," he said. "It's all about trust. And it is personal to people. Just as people would not put their money in a bank they don't trust, they will be reluctant to store their personal information in a data center or on a phone that they don't trust. These issues have undermined people's trust in American technology, and that's a shame."
Along with Google's Schmidt and Microsoft's Smith, Wyden was joined by Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, Dropbox general counsel Ramsey Homsany, and John Lily, a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners.
Congress has been considering reforms to U.S. digital communication laws, particularly the USA FREEDOM Act. But those efforts have been slow going. With only a bare majority of Americans opposed to U.S. government anti-terrorism surveillance, the event was likely a preview of how the issue will be framed when Congress returns to session: as a personal affront to American citizens, to U.S.-based technology entrepreneurs and to the global community.
"The simplest outcome is we're going to end up breaking the Internet," said Google's Schmidt. Foreign governments, he said, are "eventually going to say, we want our own Internet in our country because we want it to work our way, and we don't want the NSA and these other people in it."
At that, Wyden turned to the crowd of his fellow Palo Alto High School Vikings, no doubt many of them accustomed to a global Internet and with cellphones, tablets and laptops at close reach in their backpacks, lockers or cars.
"For all of you students," Wyden said, "I hope you heard what Mr. Schmidt was talking about, 'cause that has huge implications for all of you."
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