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Google, Snowden and Others Push 'Reset the Net' Privacy Initiative

Google and Web Publishing Platforms Say they Will Offer Data Encryption Features

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Edward Snowden, appearing by satellite Thursday from Russia.
Edward Snowden, appearing by satellite Thursday from Russia.

Edward Snowden appeared by satellite at the Personal Democracy Forum conference in New York on Thursday to endorse Reset the Net, a new privacy initiative backed by some of the largest digital corporations in the world and formed largely in response to the NSA surveillance he exposed.

"We have the technology, and adopting encryption is the first effective step that everyone can take to end mass surveillance," Mr. Snowden wrote in an earlier post on a Reset the Net Tumblr. "That's why I am excited for Reset the Net -- it will mark the moment when we turn political expression into practical action, and protect ourselves on a large scale."

The initiative, designed to encrypt data that could be intercepted by the National Security Agency and other government entities conducting bulk data sweeps, is also supported by Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and a host of privacy groups and tech companies.

"We want tech companies to push privacy upgrades in the next year that actually concretely make it more difficult for agencies like the NSA to snoop on their users," said Evan Greer, campaign manager of Fight for the Future, a non-profit organization that led the Reset the Net project. The group says it aims to propel use of the internet for public good.

While companies such as Google, Twitter and Yahoo are involved in the Reset the Net program, they remain some of most active gatherers of data about people's digital lives in existence. "I think all of these companies need to take a look at their practices … and whether their business models are at odds with fundamental rights," Mr. Greer added.

The project is two-pronged. The consumer-facing piece revolves around a push to get everyday web users to back an online petition that says, "Mass surveillance is illegitimate. I'm taking steps to take my freedoms back and I expect governments and corporations to follow in my footsteps and take steps to stop all mass government surveillance."

Like most online petitions, signing requires submitting an email address. Those addresses are being gathered by Fight for the Future, and some of its partner organizations will receive some of the email addresses, said Mr. Greer.

On the back end, companies involved in Reset the Net said they'll implement a variety of software for privacy and security purposes. Google, for example, said in a blog post earlier this week that it would offer an extension for its Chrome browser that encrypts email content.

Mark Stanley, campaign and communications strategist for Center for Democracy and Technology, a group participating in the Reset the Net project, called the Google move "significant."

Reset the Net "is about getting individuals to engage in what we call good digital hygiene," he said, adding that the Center for Democracy and Technology has been pursuing its own data security initiative as part of the Encrypt All the Things project.

Publishing platforms Wordpress and Tumblr said they would implement SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), which encrypts data as it passes between web servers and browsers.

Some companies are also pushing legislation that would restrict government data collection. Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, AOL and others signed an open letter to U.S. Senators asking them to pass a version of the USA Freedom Act that, unlike the recently-passed House version, would limit bulk collection of digital metadata -- information showing, for instance, who emails whom.

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