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Marissa Mayer and Mark Zuckerberg respond to critics over NSA compliance

Mayer stressed that Yahoo had no choice in complying with government requests; Zuckerberg says: "The government blew it"

Leading figures in the technology industry have defended their actions and criticized the US government in the wake of the Prism scandal.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said that not complying with demands for users’ data would have been “treason” whilst Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the government “blew it”. Both Mayer and Zuckerberg were speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Fransisco.

When asked “What are you doing to protect us from tyrannical governments?” Mayer said she was “proud to be part of an organisation that from the very beginning - in 2007 - with the NSA and Fisa and Prism has been sceptical of and has been scrutinizing those requests.”

Mayer also described how Yahoo had filed a lawsuit against “the new, the Patriot Act parts of Prism and Fisa” back in 2007.

Fisa, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is the body of law that prescribes how “foreign intelligence information” can be collected and distributed by the US. The acronym is also used to refer to a court that decides which methods of surveillance are legal.

“We lost,” said Mayer of the court case, adding “If you don’t comply, it’s treason."

“So now what we do at each request, we review it, we scrutinize it, we push back on a lot, we push back on a lot of requests from local government.”

When pushed on the consequences for technology companies if they were to disclose requests made by the US government for information, Mayer simply replied that “releasing classified information is treason and you’re incarcerated.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also fielded questions about his company’s involvement with data requests from the NSA. Zuckerberg said that Facebook takes their role in protecting privacy “very seriously”:

“I think it’s my job and it’s [Facebook’s] job to protect everyone who uses Facebook and all the information that they share with us. It’s our government’s job to protect all of us, and also to protect our freedoms and the economy and companies. And I think they did a bad job at balancing those things.”

“Frankly I think the government blew it,” said Zuckerberg.

He also criticized the initial response of the US, which he characterized as the admission that “basically we’re not spying on any Americans”.

“And it was like ‘oh, wonderful!’ That’s really helpful to companies who are trying to serve people around the world and that’s really gonna inspire confidence in American internet companies!”

Zuckerberg also drew attention to Facebook’s Transparency Reports released in August. These revealed the numbers of requests for individuals’ data made by different countries. The US made the most requests, between 11,000 and 12,000, with the UK making the third most requests: 1,975 cases concerning 2,337 individuals.

Zuckerberg said: “The reality is that because of the transparency we pushed for, now people can know – and I think they deserve to know – that the number of requests that the government is making is closer to 1,000 […] and definitely not 10 million or 100 million.”