Google’s Eric Schmidt, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other top tech executives huddled Friday with President Barack Obama to discuss surveillance, just days after Zuckerberg slammed the White House for working too slowly on NSA reform.
The executives — including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and the leaders of Dropbox, Box and Palantir — joined Obama and his top cabinet officials for a discussion that stressed the 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,” according to the White House.
The meeting marked the second time in about four months that the White House has invited major technology CEOs to Washington to talk about the issue. But this session was prompted in part by Zuckerberg’s recent, public rebuke of the administration, multiple sources said. The Facebook CEO in a post last week revealed he had called Obama to express “frustration over the damage the government” has caused the industry.
Exiting Friday’s discussion, a Facebook spokeswoman echoed that position: The company said Zuckerberg had “brought his concerns … directly to the president” — and while praising Obama’s engagement, the social giant said more must be done.
“While the US Government has taken helpful steps to reform its surveillance practices, these are simply not enough,” the spokeswoman said. “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.”
The brewing debate over NSA surveillance — and the U.S. government’s relationship with tech companies — have caused business headaches for the industry’s biggest names. In the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s leaks, some foreign countries and companies have grown wary of working with Silicon Valley. And U.S. tech giants fear that Europe, Brazil, India and other major markets could penalize them with trade restrictions, including laws requiring companies to store data in countries where customers reside.
“In response to the NSA disclosures, there has been an acceleration across the globe of economically harmful policies,” said Dean Garfield, president of the Information Technology Industry Council. Garfield isn’t attending the White House meeting, but said it’s “imperative that Congress and the administration show their leadership by helping to repair trust” in the sector, particularly through more transparency and oversight.
Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, Palantir CEO Alexander Karp and Box CEO Aaron Levie, as well as Schmidt and Zuckerberg, attended the Friday meeting, the White House confirmed. They joined the president along with Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, top counselor John Podesta and key NSA and counterterrorism officials, according to an official readout.
During the conversation, Obama updated the CEOs on the steps the administration has taken since the president delivered his January 17 speech calling for government surveillance reform. Obama also updated the CEOs on White House work to explore the intersection of “big data” and privacy — a review led by Podesta, and one that’s raised the specter that the administration could support new consumer online privacy protections.
To that end, the administration on Friday posted publicly on the White House website a new form that allows visitors to weigh in on whether they feel their personal data is protected online.
Tech CEOs last connected with Obama face to face in December. Yahoo chief Marissa Mayer, Twitter leader Dick Costolo and others were invited to the White House for a session on HealthCare.gov, but their conversation quickly pivoted to the NSA. Many tech companies after the meeting urged Obama in a joint statement to “move aggressively on reform.”
Mayer was invited to Friday’s meeting but could not make the trip on short notice, industry sources said. Invites for the meeting went out at the end of last week, those sources said, not long after Zuckerberg’s anti-surveillance post. Other tech companies in attendance did not immediately comment for this story.
The new meeting took place at a critical juncture in the NSA reform debate. Obama is due to issue his recommendation for the future of the spy agency’s telephone records program before the end of the month. And at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, lawmakers are ramping up for what promises to be a lengthy battle over the future of the NSA’s authorities, some of which are set to expire next year.
The congressional debate has touched off a lobbying frenzy in Washington. Many of the leading tech firms have banded together as part of a new group, called Reform Government Surveillance, that recently registered its own outside lobbyist. Some of those companies have individually spent millions of dollars to try to influence D.C. debates over privacy, cybersecurity and surveillance.
Others are joining the fight. Members of the Technology CEO Council, for example, raised some of those concerns in meetings last week with the White House and on Capitol Hill. IBM CEO Virginia Rometty, Xerox CEO Ursula Burns and others stressed both publicly and privately that continued NSA revelations could trigger new foreign trade restrictions.
“U.S. tech leaders see a rising tide of global digital protectionism, with anger about Snowden masking fairly naked mercantilism,” said Bruce Mehlman, the group’s executive director. “America has led the data economy to a place that’s great for consumers and entrepreneurs, but the trade and policy debates of 2014 will determine whether the Internet remains open and relatively unregulated or manipulated for sovereign agendas.”
This article can also be found on Politico's website.