Four ways Edward Snowden changed the world – and why the fight’s not over


Thursday marks one year since the Guardian published the first in a series of eye-opening stories about surveillance based on documents provided by Edward Snowden. The events in the 52 weeks since have proven him to be the most significant whistleblower in American history – and have reverberated throughout the world.

But along with the changes Snowden sparked, vital questions remain about how and if the National Security Agency and its global spy apparatus will truly be reformed. Many wheels are finally in motion, but will the US Congress and the courts actually respond in a meaningful way? In truth, the second year of Snowden may be more important than the first. It’s when we’ll see if global privacy rights get protected for the better – or if mass surveillance becomes more entrenched in our laws than ever before. For now, it’s important to take stock in looking ahead to the next chapter.

The internet companies: more transparency, but little lobbying for reform

Since the second day of the Snowden revelations, when both the Guardian and Washington Post revealed the now-infamous Prism program, the tech giants of Silicon Valley and beyond have been scrambling to rescue their reputations with users around the world.

Many companies have made admirable changes to start honestly fighting for user privacy rights, rather than just uttering platitudes meant to satisfy PR obligations. Most of the major US-based internet stalwarts – from Google and Facebook to Apple and Microsoft – have now changed their legal policies to notify users whenever possible of surveillance requests. Some of them have even publicly challenged the government in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (Fisa) court to allow them to be more transparent – even if they arguably got a bad deal. And more still have finally been pushing back against pernicious national security letters in court.

We still don’t know how much these companies, which have so much control over our online lives, will push back on proposed surveillance legislation, but it’s needed now more than ever. Google has been the strongest on the lobbying front – just last week it sent an email to millions of subscribers imploring them to tell Congress to pass “real surveillance reform urgently”. But there’s been barely a peep from the other companies, most notably Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg has complained in public, but the social network has shown little will to fight behind the scenes in DC, despite the hollow bill now moving forward to the US Senate at a rapid pace.

The telecommunications companies, most notably AT&T and Verizon, have always been the true problem. After all, it was AT&T that originally got sued by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF, my former employer) in 2006 for criminally allowing the NSA to copy huge portions of its internet traffic in secret. But even the two phone giants could not fully avoid the Snowden Effect. After shareholders threatened lawsuits, they both decided to release transparency..

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