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Tech CEOs Meet With Obama for "Honest Talk" About NSA

Among those at the meeting was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Pete Souza/White House

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of other CEOs had an “honest talk” with President Obama Friday afternoon at a hastily arranged meeting to discuss Silicon Valley’s continued unhappiness with U.S. government surveillance practices

White House officials characterized the meeting as a “continued dialogue” on the surveillance issue, but it appeared to be a direct reaction to a blistering post the Facebook co-founder published last week criticizing the administration’s efforts thus far to change the National Security Agency’s data collection practices.

Zuckerberg “brought his concerns about government surveillance directly to the president today” and the CEOs had “an honest talk about government intrusion on the Internet and the toll it is taking on people’s confidence in a free and open Internet,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement after the meeting.

“While the U.S. government has taken helpful steps to reform its surveillance practices, these are simply not enough,” the statement continued. Several other tech companies with CEOs at the meeting declined to comment, including Netflix and Google.

White House officials said President Obama “reiterated his administration’s commitment to taking steps that can give people greater confidence that their rights are being protected while preserving important tools that keep us safe.”

Invitations to the CEOs were sent just a few days after Zuckerberg posted his scathing comments.

Zuckerberg complained about the Obama administration’s slow response to concerns raised by the public and tech companies. The post appeared to be sparked by news reports that suggested the NSA had used a fake Facebook server to obtain files and infect targets’ computers.

“The U.S. government should be the champion for the Internet, not a threat. They need to be much more transparent about what they’re doing, or otherwise people will believe the worst,” Zuckerberg posted on Facebook, adding that he’d called President Obama to complain. “Unfortunately, it seems like it will take a very long time for true full reform.”

The Friday meeting was a follow-up with tech CEOs “to continue his dialogue with them on the issues of privacy, technology and intelligence,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday.

In January, the president laid out a framework for reforming the NSA’s surveillance methods, which have become a particular problem for tech companies trying to do business overseas, as the New York Times noted Friday morning. Concerns about NSA spying and its effect on consumer confidence in tech companies like Dropbox and Facebook has become a major issue for the industry in Washington and has prompted many companies to increase their lobbying efforts.

Several companies sued the government for the right to release more information about NSA information requests. Those suits were later dropped after the companies reached an agreement with federal officials that allows companies to release more information about intelligence requests. They’ve formed lobbying groups like Reform Government Surveillance to coordinate their efforts.

CEOs present at the Friday meeting included:

  • Eric Schmidt of Google
  • Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook
  • Reed Hastings of Netflix
  • Drew Houston of Dropbox
  • Alexander Karp of Palantir Technologies
  • Aaron Levie of Box

Several other CEOs couldn’t rearrange their schedules after getting an invite last Saturday, including Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, industry officials said. Mayer attended a similar meeting of tech CEOs in December at the White House that was supposed to be about how to improve, but quickly turned into a complaint session about NSA surveillance techniques.

In mid-January, Obama announced the Justice Department and intelligence community had until the end of March to make recommendations on how to overhaul the NSA’s phone-data collection program.

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