A coalition of 63 tech companies and civil rights groups--including Facebook, Apple, Tumblr, Google--filed a massive petition to the United States government Thursday morning pushing for more transparency over government requests for data on users. 

Specifically, the letter urges the U.S. government to allow these companies to be more open with their customers about how the government collects information about its users under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act--and how often they do so.  

The letter also serves as a way for these companies to try to save face (more on that in a minute).

Under current law, it is illegal for companies to publicly disclose any of the information requests they receive from the government.

According to the letter, published on the Human Rights Watch website, the groups demand three basic changes:

First, the U.S. government should ensure that those companies who are entrusted with the privacy and security of their users' data are allowed to regularly report statistics reflecting:

  • The number of government requests for information about their users made under specific legal authorities such as Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, the various National Security Letter (NSL) statutes, and others;
  • The number of individuals, accounts, or devices for which information was requested under each authority; and
  • The number of requests under each authority that sought communications content, basic subscriber information, and/or other information.

As an initial step, we request that the Department of Justice, on behalf of the relevant executive branch agencies, agree that Internet, telephone, and web-based service providers may publish specific numbers regarding government requests authorized under specific national security authorities, including theForeign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the NSL statutes. We further urge Congress to pass legislation requiring comprehensive transparency reporting by the federal government and clearly allowing for transparency reporting by companies without requiring companies to first seek permission from the government or the FISA Court.

It's unlikely the the government will immediately change its course of action in light of this letter, so it stands to reason that there's a bit of damage control happening here.

Ever since the PRISM scandal broke several weeks ago that accused at least nine major tech firms with complying with government spying efforts there's been a surge of interest around Internet and consumer privacy rights. People are even beginning to flee some social media sites, because they fear the government is watching (even if that's not really the case). But the point is that companies have long thought of themselves as pinnacles of transparency--Google even publishes its own transparency report--so it's safe to say their reputations are on the line here. 

If anything, this letter may help contain some of those worries, and keep users happy. But will it lead to any particular action? Probably not.