THE ALTRUISTIC Free Software Foundation (FSF) has responded strongly to the open letter from internet firms to the US government about surveillance, saying that it would rather see them put their own houses in order first.
AOL, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Linkedin, Microsoft and Yahoo sent the letter earlier this week. In it they asked for changes in government surveillance practices.
"Dear Mr. President and Members of Congress, We understand that governments have a duty to protect their citizens. But this summer's revelations highlighted the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide," it said.
"The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual - rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It's time for a change."
The FSF said it has seen the letter, and that it concurs with it and can see working with the companies on these goals. However, it said that there are bigger dangers out there, adding that more is needed than government reform. Rather, it said, corporate surveillance reform is more immediately needed.
"The Free Software Foundation may support one or more of the measures proposed to 'reform government surveillance.' We may end up working with this coalition of companies, after we have had a chance to review and discuss with them what they are advocating. It is encouraging to see recognition from the coalition about one side of the surveillance issue," said Free Software Foundation executive director John Sullivan.
"However, this problem is not one that can be solved through government reform alone, and there is a danger that focus on these reforms will be flypaper that drains energy for more fundamental change. In addition to policy reform, we must have software reform."
Sullivan indicated that the companies are making some appropriate noises, but aren't saying all that they should be. He suggested that the firms are complicit in data surveillance.
"In the US, there were already policies and laws against many revealed spy agency behaviors. These rules are being ignored, or interpreted in ways that maximize surveillance," he added.
"The surveillance is actively enabled by these companies' software and technology. Microsoft Windows provides back doors for the NSA. Companies like Google and Facebook build their businesses on the model of consolidating huge amounts of user data, enabling mining of that data, and pulling users away from software run on their own computers to software that is remotely hosted."
The FSF didn't pull any punches and Sullivan said that the coalition parties should take responsibility for their part in the situation. He said that the firms that put their names to the letter should accept that they do not respect data privacy themselves, and play fast and loose with their users' trust.
"Nowhere on the coalition site, or in the open letter, do any of the companies take any responsibility for what is happening. Yet, they have intentionally put their users in a vulnerable position, and exploited them without hesitation. They use copyright, patents, and contracts to insist that the software they publish be proprietary. Or, instead of distributing software at all, they provide it as a hosted 'service'," he added.
"Both have the same negative implications for users. The very people using this software are not allowed to see what it is actually doing, nor can they ask for someone else of their choosing to review it on their behalf. The result is a computer that in the end serves only the company who 'owns' the software - and the governments with whom they choose to share information, or anyone who can find their way to the backdoors."
The FSF is calling on the firms to reform corporate surveillance, and not just make noises about changes to government snooping.
"We might support their ideas for new laws, but we must be careful not to invest public resources inventing new policy band-aids to cover wounds they are perpetually re-opening," added Sullivan. "We won't let this distract us from their ongoing culpability, or the need for radical software reform." µ
Sign up for INQbot – a weekly roundup of the best from the INQ