Digital communications platforms like Gmail and WhatsApp, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and cloud services like iCloud and Dropbox hold the personal data of hundreds of millions of people. When police or intelligence agencies want to access this data, the companies are faced with a choice: comply or fight.
Recently, news reports revealed that last year, in response to a court order, Yahoo modified its spam-filtering technology to capture and deliver to the government emails containing a character string associated with a foreign terrorist organization. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all issued statements avowing that they would fight similar orders if they received them.
America’s greatest political theorist, James Madison, envisioned that the “opposite and rival interests” of the three branches of government would balance one another out. But government institutions are not the only features of our system that keep government power in check. The vital role of a free press was self-evident to the founding generation, which enshrined press freedom in the First Amendment. Outside advocacy groups, from the ACLU to the NRA, are another external counterweight. Increasingly, however the companies that provide digital communications and social media platforms are emerging as a powerful outside check on government power.
Read the full commentary on the National Interest.