Microsoft, Google, Yahoo! Talk Privacy with President Obama

President Obama held a clandestine tech summit at the White House Thursday night as the industry sits at the center of the privacy debate following the Prism revelations.

According to Politico, “Obama met Thursday night with Apple CEO Tim Cook, legendary Google engineer Vint Cerf, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson and others from the privacy and civil liberties community … to discuss government surveillance. … [O]fficials say the group has been tasked to prepare a report on the issue 60 days after it’s officially chartered …”

It could prove to be an awkward position for companies such as Facebook and Google, who, of course, want to appear helpful to the White House but who also collect information from their users. These companies aren’t looking for the government to get involved in how they do business and have shied away in the past from participating in formal privacy discussions.

Can you say A-W-K-W-A-R-D?

The president made the call for more transparency and the formation of a White House task force on privacy during a Friday afternoon press conference.

The meetings were probably meant to smooth the way for the announcement of a privacy task force and also assure tech firms that they won’t be the target of the government.  Additional attendees included representatives from the Center for Democracy and Technology and Gigi Sohn, leader of the Internet campaign group Public Knowledge, Politico‘s Tony Romm reported.

Easing the concerns of the tech industry seems to be of prime concern to the White House because it was reported that Obama’s chief of staff and general counsel also met with major tech associations who represent the big players earlier in the week.  Silicon Valley has been increasing their investment in lobbying and contributions to individual candidates on both sides of the aisle in recent years, so the White House needs to treat lightly.

Companies like Google are still fighting the Department of Justice over what kind of information they can provide via Prism. Remember when Prism was announced, and the companies first claimed no knowledge of the program before it was revealed that they were intimately involved in sharing data?

“Explicitly, there appears to be no interest in needling companies for targeted Web advertisements or questioning social networks on their privacy practices. … Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo quickly praised the president on Friday for his pledge to examine government surveillance with industry input,” Politico reported.

Tech companies also need to protect their bottom line. The U.S. cloud computing industry reported earlier this week that it stands to lose billions to Europe and other countries over concerns of storing data with U.S. companies.

In other Prism news, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has a new contingent of online supporters. A website launched by the digital rights group Fight for the Future attracted more than 10,000 posts last week expressing support for Snowden’s actions. The site features a combination of photographs of individuals holding up signs and written words of support.

The online petition reads, “Tell Edward Snowden,’Thank you for exposing the NSA’s illegal spying programs. We support your whistleblowing.’ ”

“Snowden risked everything to tell the truth. Tell him you’ve got his back.”

It’s actually written a lot like an Obama fundraising appeal.

Readers, do you think U.S. tech companies should sit on the privacy task force the president is forming?

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