Tech titans visit White House to press case for surveillance reform
GWEN IFILL: We turn to the latest developments over the reach of the government's surveillance program. Tech executives from 15 leading companies, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Apple, met with the president at the White House today.
The companies came with a list of concerns about government surveillance on the day after a federal judge questioned its constitutionality.
Margaret Talev covers the White House for Bloomberg News.
Welcome. And thank you for joining us tonight.
So, what was on the executives' agendas who showed up at the White House today, Margaret?
MARGARET TALEV, Bloomberg News: So much of this, Gwen, is about, in the final weeks, as the administration and the president are making their decisions about how to rein in this program, about making clear what their concerns are, which is that their business is being impacted by fears in other countries that information and data is not private and that they're working on behalf the NSA.
GWEN IFILL: What was the White House agenda at this meeting?
MARGARET TALEV: So much of the White House agenda is similarly about perception. It's about both sending a signal to Americans that they care about privacy and sending a signal to American business that the president who has the sort of bad rap about does he understand really the concerns of business does and that he is listening.
GWEN IFILL: There were 15 tech titans invited to this meeting. How many of them have been affected by, for instance, these efforts on the government's part to make them turn over records of their users?
MARGARET TALEV: Well, virtually all of them either have been directly affected or are concerned that in some way they are going to be affected from a financial perspective.
But, for example, these companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, AT&T, and Comcast, the telecommunications companies have obviously been directly affected. Some of the other Internet companies, to the extent that they use sort of cloud services, this is a major concern, both in terms of their existing business and their ability to grow business in both Europe and developing countries.
GWEN IFILL: I know this was a private meeting and people were pretty cheery with the comments afterwards, but did your reporting turn up anything on what kind of conversation happened at that table?
MARGARET TALEV: Yes, I mean, we know a couple of things.
One is that Eric Schmidt of Google sort of opened up by saying, look, these are sort of some five broad principles that all of us agree on. To the extent that we can tell you what we share in terms of recommendations, this is it.
And they had to do largely on two fronts, one in terms of sort of dialing back the collection of information and, two, in terms of increasing the transparency, so that these companies can at least tell their clients, tell their customers or individuals, this is how many requests the government has made last year, so that people can get a handle on how big it is.
The other thing that we know is that Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! expressed a really specific concern about sort of balkanization of policies from country to country in order to deal with that and how that could be problematic for American business.
GWEN IFILL: Do we know -- the president asked for a review panel to look into these measures a short time ago. Do we know whether he and the executives agree at all on what reform should look like?
MARGARET TALEV: Right.
Well, so, what we know about the review panel is essentially through leaks, because the panel's recommendation are classified until they're declassified. And we won't see them in the form that they were submitted.
We will see some version of that some time in January. But what we know who is that that panel recommended that the government continue its metadata collection program. Or at least that's based on the reports from administration officials so far. And so sort of, ironically, right, is yesterday's move by the federal -- by the district court judge to say just the opposite, to say, I think that this metadata collection in its current format is probably unconstitutional.
So you have this panel saying go forward with some modifications and this court saying, I don't think so, we want to hear from an appeals court, but that this judge would be inclined to say it goes too far.
GWEN IFILL: Was it a coincidence that today was the day the White House announced that they had hired someone from Microsoft to take over healthcare.gov?
MARGARET TALEV: Right.
Well, it's an interesting point. And what the White House has been telling us is that this meeting was planned days ago. Now, they may have always planned to roll out the Microsoft executive at this meeting. The White House originally wanted to talk about health care and what they're doing to fix the bugs in the health care rollout.
And the tech executives said, hey, guess what, we're not coming unless you will guarantee us that the NSA tops the agenda at this meeting.
GWEN IFILL: And who he is?
MARGARET TALEV: Well, Mr. DelBene, he is -- will succeed Jeffrey Zients in terms of running this program and overseeing -- making sure that if everything goes as planned that the health care Web site and enrollment process goes forward and the Americans are going to be able to sign up without the sort of glitches that have plagued the initial weeks of the rollout.
GWEN IFILL: Margaret Talev of Bloomberg News, thanks so much.
MARGARET TALEV: Thank you.