WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Search giant Google Inc pushed the U.S. government to be more open about its online spying on Wednesday in the first such testimony before Congress by a major technology company since a series of news leaks began in June.
In written testimony submitted to a U.S. Senate judiciary subcommittee, a Google executive said that the official secrecy was contrary to American values and hurting U.S. economic interests.
“Governments have a duty to protect their citizens. The current lack of transparency about the nature of government surveillance in democratic countries, however, undermines the freedoms most citizens cherish,” Google’s director for law enforcement and information security, Richard Salgado, said in the written testimony. He was expected to take questions later in the hearing.
Members of Congress are grappling with what changes to make to U.S. surveillance programs and laws after documents leaked by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden to newspapers revealed the extent of the spying.
President Barack Obama’s administration has defended the programs and the secrecy around them as necessary to counter militant groups such as al Qaeda.
Some U.S. lawmakers have said they did not intend to authorize programs that are so sweeping, such as the daily collection of millions of pieces of data about telephone calls. At the request of spy agencies and government lawyers, the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the programs, has allowed them to go on.
Google, Microsoft Corp and other major tech companies have asked that they be allowed to provide the public greater detail on the orders they receive from the U.S. surveillance court.
They want to be able to say, without running afoul of secrecy laws, how many demands they get under various sections of U.S. spying laws. Not being allowed to publish that level of detail represents a “prior restraint of speech” that is presumptively unlawful, Salgado said.
Government lawyers say that level of detail would tell U.S. enemies too much about spying capabilities.
Salgado also quoted reports that U.S. companies may lose billions of dollars in revenue as non-American users of the Internet grow wary of services based in the United States.
“The free flow of data globally is critical to ever-expanding amounts of economic activity throughout the world, and limitations on that flow could have severe unintended consequences, such as a reduction in data security, increased costs, decreased competitiveness, and harms to consumers,” he said.