Will Obama Attempt to Co-Opt the Internet Companies?

Of late, Keith Alexander has added a new thing to his public schtick: inviting tech companies to come up with a way to dragnet more effectively. In the middle of discussions of why NSA must retain the phone dragnet, he’ll stop, and say, if the tech companies can come up with a way to do it better (not just to do the same thing as effectively, mind you, but better), he wants to hear it.

At a minimum, that new schtick should alert you that in 2011 when they “ended” the Internet dragnet, they didn’t end it, they just found a way to do it better, because that’s how Alexander speaks of that decision in this context.

But you might also keep this shift in Alexander’s schtick in mind as you read Matthew Aid’s story about how the President whitewash became a graywash.

At the same time, the agency’s once harmonious relationship with this country’s largest high-tech companies, such as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, is now a shattered smoking ruin, NSA officials fret. Only the “big three” American telecommunications companies—AT&T, Verizon and Sprint—appear to remain firmly supportive, and even they are beginning to put some distance between themselves and the NSA as shareholders ask pointed questions about their clandestine relationship with the agency.

In this political climate, it was perhaps inevitable that the Review Group would recommend making substantive changes in the way the NSA operates. “We had to go this route,” a Review Group staffer told me in an interview. “If we did not recommend placing some additional controls and checks and balances on the NSA’s operations, the high-tech companies were going to kill us and Congress was going to burn the house down. Besides, our report is non-binding, so who knows what the White House is going to accept and what they are going to toss out.”

Frankly, I think the relationship with some tech companies (Microsoft) has been more harmonious than with others (Yahoo and to some extent Google). And it was never the same as the telecoms enjoy, not least because the telecoms have been stealing the tech companies’ data on and off at the government’s behest for a decade now.

But I’m not at all surprised that citizen outrage had no effect on the Review Group and Administration, but Internet company outrage did.

Fast forward to today, where Obama’s got a meeting with a curious group of CEOs.

  • Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
  • Dick Costolo, CEO, Twitter
  • Chad Dickerson, CEO, Etsy
  • Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO, Netflix
  • Drew Houston, founder and CEO, Dropbox
  • Marissa Mayer, president and CEO, Yahoo!
  • Burke Norton, chief legal officer, Salesforce
  • Mark Pincus, founder, chief product officer and chairman, Zynga
  • Shervin Pishevar, co-founder and co-CEO, Sherpa Global
  • Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO, Comcast
  • Erika Rottenberg, vice president, general counsel and secretary, LinkedIn
  • Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
  • Eric Schmidt, executive chairman, Google
  • Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel, Microsoft
  • Randall Stephenson, chairman and CEO, AT&T

As WaPo’s piece on this points out, the meeting mixes the leaders of the Internet companies calling for more transparency — Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft, to a lesser extent Apple, LinkedIn, and Facebook, as well as Dropbox — and AT&T, the company that has been stealing from the critics. In addition, Comcast, which almost certainly has joined AT&T in that more harmonious role, will attend.

The initial reports on the meeting dubbed it an effort for the President to discuss — and try to fix — Federal IT contracting in the wake of the ObamaCare website.

But the critics have issued a statement making it clear they intend to talk about surveillance.

So let’s consider the dynamic to expect at this meeting. You’ve got a lot of Internet bigwigs, two Toobz bigwigs, and some smaller CEOs. That dynamic, right away, should prevent a truly candid conversation (because of the differing interests of all the parties).

And against that dynamic, the President will be discussing how to make it easier to contract with real software companies, rather than bloated federal software contractors.

There will be the stilted conversation about NSA (and AT&T) stealing from Internet companies. And a far less stilted conversation about the federal government expanding its contracting with private sector Internet companies.

They’ll have a stilted conversation about reining in government, and a less stilted conversation about putting more government dollars in Internet company pockets.

Update: Changed title to reflect these are Internet companies, not software, and fixed some syntax.

Update: Meanwhile, Obama has named a Microsoft Exec to be his new ObamaCare fixer, which should make it easier to send more business Microsoft’s way.

17 replies
  1. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    The Wall Street Journal today has a front page article headlined “Tech Firms Push to Control Web’s Pipes
    Google, Facebook Raise Tensions With Telecoms in Power Struggle for Internet’s Backbone” (paywalled http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304173704579262361885883936 ).

    While I’m sure the tech companies are pissed that the telecomms facilitate eavesdropping, this is really about money.

    Once upon a time, we had the Bell System, a highly engineered, expensive network designed to be 99.999% reliable. Then the Internet came along with a completely different philosophy, cheap, best effort networking. Cheap, best-effort networking has won, and the telecomms are being reduced to commodities, or “dumb pipes” as they put it. Now that the internet companies are wealthy enough to do it, they’re not only buying up cable infrastructure, they’re laying their own cables, making them truly an existential threat.

    That’s why AT&T (and Verizon) have bet so heavily on wireless. Heavily regulated with limited spectrum resources, they can fight becoming dumb, wireless pipes and keep their ridiculous business model. But along comes Apple and redefines the smart phone business, stripping out any branding from the carrier, banishing crapware, and turning the carriers into a dumb retailers for the Apple platform. No wonder AT&T is on a PR campaign against “subsidized” phones. (Hint: They’re not subsidized. They loan you the money for the purchase, which you pay back through your 2 year contract.)

    You’ve got a very interesting set of frenemies in the Oval Office today. Etsy? Global Sherpa? WTF? And Comcast?

    I hope nobody brings up SOPA/PIPPA because, if they do, the Secret Service might have to break up the ensuing brawl.

  2. Frank33 says:

    Oh this is embarrasing. the NSA made a video. There is a transcript.

    It’s a group of, probably, the geekiest within the Agency!

    I’ve been giving the opportunity to really innovate – particularly in web technology. I make a dashboard that’s used all across the world.

    And I’ve been able to work with some really, really, crazy-smart people. Like, people who are so smart that it is actually scary! (laughs)

    I definitely feel like I can be myself at the Agency.

    Lots of Laughs

    class=”twitter-tweet” lang=”en”>The NSA recruitment video at http://t.co/oYmekhixc5 has the names of the interviewees embedded. Via @voltagex #OPSEC pic.twitter.com/bQt23jxzZ2— Mikko Hypponen ‹␊␍› (@mikko) December 17, 2013

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Thanks for linking that–was coming back to do just that. Note, as Chris Soghoian pointed out on Twitter, Google’s deal on the cable to Asia probably means they’ve signed into the Team Telecom arrangement. Which may mean they knew more about the tapped cables in Europe then they let on.

    What role do you think Etsy and Global Sherpa play?

    I’d also add, that the history of our cyberwar suggests that Microsoft may already have some unseen profit centers with the government they’re not telling us about. So there may be some tensions between the Internet companies.

  4. Peterr says:

    In that list of attendees, three names stick out:

    Burke Norton, chief legal officer, Salesforce
    Erika Rottenberg, vice president, general counsel and secretary, LinkedIn
    Brad Smith, executive vice president and general counsel, Microsoft

    Most companies sent their CEOs, but these three are their company’s chief lawyers. I’d love to know why these companies chose to send their legal eagles and not the CEO.

    If you’re going to talk about website construction, you don’t send your lawyer. OTOH, if you’re concerned about internet privacy, sending your lawyer to chat with the president is a good idea. If you’re especially concerned with possible stricter Europeans privacy regulations (see Microsoft), it’s even more important.

  5. lefty665 says:

    @Frank33: It’s long, long ago, but it is by far the brightest folks I have ever met. It does not look like that has changed for the dumber. No matter how much I dislike what they have done, their technical skills are stunning. Too bad they weren’t working on healthcare.gov. The video is probably effective recruiting.

    The problem is turning those sharp tools inward on all of us. That is a political and management decision that personalizes to Alexander, Inglis, two Administrations and Congress.

    Have you clicked on those links? When you open the door to nsa.gov you explicitly and voluntarily agree to be exploited. “Lots of laughs” for sure, but the really crazy bright folks may have the last one.

  6. Frank33 says:

    I have not verified what “Mikko Hypponen” said, or even if that is a real person. But it would be funny if the names of the NSA people interviewed were embedded in the source code.

    And this is hilarious regardless.

    This is a great place to work because you do get to work on breakthrough technological advances in mathematics and other sciences as well. But those breakthroughs that you make have a direct contribution to the intelligence we’re able to produce for the President as well as the safety of our Nation.

    They do not care about the safety of the nation. General Hayden and General Alexander care about suppressing technology, especially energy technology. They care about lying and protecting Saudi Arabia who murdered 3000 people on 9/11. They care about harassing antiwar dissidents and creating more wars. They want to start WWIII.

    Taxpayers finance their research. Any breakthrough technological advances they find remain with them or are given to multinational corporations. The NSA claimed they discovered Public-key cryptography before Ron Rivest, Adi Shamir and Leonard Adleman.

  7. lefty665 says:

    @Frank33: So you would not click the guaranteed exploited links, but you knowingly put them in your comment without any word of caution to anyone? Thanks a lot.

    Your “hilarious” quote has been mostly true for the folks who work at the Agency since its founding. Exceptions being the Church Commission findings that demonstrated the dangers of the Executive branch turning NSAs tools inward. I believe the rank, file and much of the management believe in and are dedicated to help keep us safe.

    Like I said above, Alexander, Inglis, two Administrations and Congress are where the mission was perverted. I agree, Hayden belongs on that list too. That seems to be what Snowden, Binney and Drake have told us.

    Secrecy and compartmentalization have kept most Agency workers from understanding the scope of what has happened. Snowden’s revelations have obviously caused great, and appropriate, internal distress as workers and families begin to understand. What recourse do they have? Civilian employees can quit and collect unemployment, military risk the brig or stockade.

    All I’m suggesting is that is does not help much to confuse the spokes and the wheels.

  8. Frank33 says:


    So you would not click the guaranteed exploited links, but you knowingly put them in your comment without any word of caution to anyone? Thanks a lot.

    I have no idea what you are talking about. You should explain what a “guaranteed exploited link” is.

    I did link to the nsa transcript. And I did embedd the twitter comment. I regret embedding that comment because it delayed my comment by having too many links. Embedding twitter comments is always problematic and I probably will avoid those links in the future.

    I should have just copied the twitter message. But the NSA spies on everybody anyway, so everything is scooped up regardless. Although they may not have noticed the EmptyWheel Blog because it is so low profile. If the management here, wants to chastize me, then that is fair.

    If you want a fight, by accusing me of something, BRING IT ON!

  9. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @emptywheel: (Do you know how many companies on the web mix Sherpa and Globe/Global? I almost made a very embarrassing mistake. Sherpa Global is both a new venture capital endeavor and a web design studio out of Atlanta. And then there’s Global Sherpa, which is something else.)

    Sherpa Global must really be about its co-CEO, Shervin Pishevar, who’s a serial entrepeneur. Before going into the venture capital world, he was General Manager of Mozilla, so he has a quasi-digital freedom backgound. It also can’t hurt that he’s a non-caucasian Iranian immigrant.

    But Etsy? I have no idea, except that the meeting was said also to be about economic inequality and there’s a plan to address this by incentivizing the poor to sell crafts on Etsy.

    I spent some time trying to figure out who crafted the invitation list, whether it went through some trade association and therefore trade association internal politics might have dictated some of the list, but I couldn’t find anything like that.

  10. P J Evans says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum:
    Etsy, like eBay, requires that you sign up for an account in order to buy stuff. This makes it a lot less useful for selling goods than they want you to believe.

  11. lefty665 says:

    This is a “guaranteed exploited link” http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/media_center/careers/video/WorkatNSATechPerspective/Transcript.html The http://www.nsa.gov/etc is the indicator. The link to the video had the nsa.gov/etc a layer down.

    If you look at the effort NSA has expended to collect data all over the world, do you think they’d ignore what they get for free from their own web site? Did you see the recent release on how they exploit Google and other cookies? Think they’d pass up the opportunity to set some of their own when it was handed to them on a platter? That’s just the obvious tip of the iceberg. There’s lots more payload that could be delivered once someone enters the site, and no legal bitches.

    No, I do not want to fight. Seems pretty clear that your link was innocent. We all have gotten so accustomed to clicking, cutting and pasting that it’s almost unconscious. When linking to a potentially aggressive site a quick heads up does the trick. It helps keep folks from clicking first and looking at the url later.

    PS, I’d also recommend against downloading that pretty NSA shield image that has been floating around the web. It looks like an Agency product. If so, who knows what lurks in there. It would not be the first time. The Russians exploited one in our Embassy long ago.

  12. Surrealistodefierros says:

    I don’t think “co-opt” is the right word, perhaps. Most of these companies contributed heavily to him in both of his elections. Perhaps they believe that their donations warrant their inclusion in the discussions. (And on some level, perhaps they do, but buying political influence with money is not exactly a “recent” tradition, even if super-police-state powers are.) Perhaps what he is attempting to do is forestall their possible decision to fund candidates with opposition views to the current state of affairs @ the midterms. But it all looks more to be collusion at high levels between big business and the administrative branch, performed well above the heads of the general public. They were all already bought off- in their winning with him, and his winning, with them.

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