No surprise — Google, Microsoft and their peers have come to believe the National Security Agency is making their profits less secure, and they’re raising a stink about it. They’ve been embarrassed by revelations of how widely the NSA has been gathering data from the tech companies’ customers — both in the United States and abroad. They want American law changed to increase privacy protections — and to forestall foreign governments punishing American companies.
What may surprise you is that one of the organizations that has come out most quickly and strongly against certain NSA practices is the American Library Association, of which — full disclosure — I am a member. That may seem strange, but for several decades now the ALA has been among the nation’s most outspoken defenders of Americans’ privacy rights.
The connection is that librarians believe that if someone else can know what you are reading and then perhaps harass you for reading it, then you are not really free to read what you want after all. As a profession, we also believe the right to privacy extends to what you write. And my guess, judging from activity at our Main Library, is that many hundreds of thousands of Americans do their Internet communication through public library computers.
Librarians recognize that terrorism is a danger and that freedoms are sometimes reduced in the face of dangers. But I believe there should be an ongoing assessment of the costs of reducing those freedoms — especially when the threat situation is well into its second decade, with no end in sight. When the nation’s leading tech companies — who are also among our leading players in international commerce — demand a reassessment, they’ll get government attention.
Now, as to how tech companies themselves collect and use their customers’ data …