High-tech giants called on Washington to make public more information about
national security programs and lift gag orders about Internet data collection.
The requests were made by Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo! Inc. and echoed by a top Twitter Inc. official.
The requests came as the Senate Intelligence Committee asked the National Security Agency, whose sweeping Internet surveillance program is at the center of the controversy, to publicly explain its programs that use phone and Internet records "so that we can talk about them," said committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has defended the surveillance efforts.
At the same time, a bipartisan group of eight senators announced a new bill to declassify the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinions that give the NSA the legal power to carry out the sweeping Internet surveillance programs.
"Americans deserve to know how much information about their private communications the government believes it's allowed to take under the law," said bill author Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.
Merkley originally introduced the bill in December, but it went nowhere.
The calls for greater transparency followed reports by British newspaper The Guardian and The Washington Post last week the NSA collects and analyzes millions of people's data from nine U.S. Internet companies.
The newspapers said the program, code-named PRISM, was focused on foreigners. But they said the NSA has also collected data about U.S. citizens and residents that under certain circumstances can be reviewed by officials.
Google published an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller Tuesday requesting the right to publicly report the scope of national security data requests.
"Google has nothing to hide," Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote, saying allowing the information to become public would let Google significantly expand its semi-annual "transparency reports" about information sought by courts and police worldwide.
The Justice Department said it was reviewing Google's request.
Facebook issued a statement shortly after Google made its letter public, saying it might start its own "transparency reports" -- a move the Post said Facebook had long resisted.
"We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information," Facebook General Counsel Ted Ullyot wrote.
Microsoft issued a statement in support of Google, saying greater transparency "would help the community understand and debate these important issues."
Yahoo! said, "We recognize the importance of privacy and security, and we also believe that transparency ... will help build public trust."
Twitter General Counsel Alex Macgillivray, who previously was a Google lawyer, posted on his Twitter account: "Completely agree with @Google, @SenJeffMerkley & others -- we'd like more NSL transparency and @Twitter supports efforts to make that happen."
On top of these moves, the American Civil Liberties Union filed the first major legal challenge to the NSA phone-data collection program.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New York City Tuesday, alleges the NSA violated the ACLU's constitutional rights.
It cited the Obama administration's acknowledgment of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order giving it permission to collect information about calls made by customers of Verizon Communications Inc. The ACLU said it's a Verizon customer.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the lawsuit.
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