The U.S government can take action to slow the calls in other countries to abandon U.S. tech vendors following revelations about widespread National Security Agency surveillance, some tech representatives said Friday.
Decisions by other governments to move their residents' data away from the U.S. are hurting tech vendors, but Congress can take steps to "rebuild the trust" in the U.S. as a responsible Internet leader, said Kevin Bankston, policy director of the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute.
Still, other governments will continue to try to use the NSA revelations by former agency contractor Edward Snowden to their advantage, said panelists at a Congressional Internet Caucus discussion on the effect of NSA surveillance on U.S. businesses.
"What we have here is an inflection point -- a moment for other countries, other companies, to close the gap and to use this as an opportunity to really catch up to the IT industry in the U.S.," added Chris Hopfensperger, policy director with software trade group BSA.
BSA is hearing "anecdotal" evidence of foreign governments turning away U.S. tech vendors because of NSA surveillance, Hopfensperger said. He noted news reports last month of the German government dropping a contract with Verizon Communications because of spying.
Hopfensperger called on U.S. policymakers to actively address worldwide concerns about NSA surveillance, instead of waiting to see what the impact on the U.S. tech industry will be. "There's a very large focus on what is the dollar impact on this," he said. "The problem with looking at the numbers of what has happened is, by the time you have a real dollar amount, that business is lost, and it's not coming back to the U.S."
While some of the debate in other countries over NSA surveillance programs appears to be driven by privacy concerns, many countries seem to also have a "mercantilist" agenda to promote their own IT industries at the expense of U.S. companies, said Stewart Baker, a lawyer and former general counsel at the NSA.
Baker also blamed "Snowdenista" journalists for distorting the surveillance activities of the NSA while downplaying the U.S. government's privacy and civil liberties oversight of the agency.
Baker questioned whether any of the surveillance reforms being debated in Congress will stop other countries from pushing for their residents' data to be stored inside their borders. The main reform proposed, which would scale back an NSA program collecting U.S. telephone records, would have "zero effect" on calls by other countries to stop using U.S. tech vendors, he said.
"What would you suggest, a worldwide apology tour?" Baker said. If privacy advocates want to propose "an international agreement that we're not going to do espionage, that's as plausible as saying we won't have extramarital sex in the future. If we signed up to that, we'd be the only people who'd actually try to enforce it on our own government."
While current legislative proposals on NSA surveillance are largely limited to protecting U.S. residents, Congress can do more, Bankston and Hopfensperger said.
"We don't a need a world apology tour, but it's pretty clear that doing nothing isn't getting us anywhere at all," Hopfensperger said. "Billions of dollars are being lost and there's going to be more to come."
Bankston called on Congress to narrow the scope of data collection by the NSA, both within and outside the U.S. Lawmakers can also allow tech vendors to publish more information about the surveillance requests they receive and can prohibit U.S. intelligence agencies from asking tech vendors to build back doors into products.
The NSA should also stop "secret stockpiling" of Web vulnerabilities as a way to exploit them, he said.
All those changes, and others, could help restore trust in the U.S. government and tech vendors, he said. "There is a real impact coming from this, and we need to act to address it," he said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is email@example.com.