In Wired, Steven Levy explains how the NSA nearly killed the internet:
On June 6, 2013, Washington Post reporters called the communications departments of Apple, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other Internet companies. The day before, a report in the British newspaper The Guardian had shocked Americans with evidence that the telecommunications giant Verizon had voluntarily handed a database of every call made on its network to the National Security Agency. The piece was by reporter Glenn Greenwald, and the information came from Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old IT consultant who had left the US with hundreds of thousands of documents detailing the NSA’s secret procedures.
Greenwald was the first but not the only journalist that Snowden reached out to. The Post’s Barton Gellman had also connected with him. Now, collaborating with documentary filmmaker and Snowden confidante Laura Poitras, he was going to extend the story to Silicon Valley. Gellman wanted to be the first to expose a top-secret NSA program called Prism. Snowden’s files indicated that some of the biggest companies on the web had granted the NSA and FBI direct access to their servers, giving the agencies the ability to grab a person’s audio, video, photos, emails, and documents. The government urged Gellman not to identify the firms involved, but Gellman thought it was important. “Naming those companies is what would make it real to Americans,” he says. Now a team of Post reporters was reaching out to those companies for comment.
It would be the start of a chain reaction that threatened the foundations of the industry. The subject would dominate headlines for months and become the prime topic of conversation in tech circles. For years, the tech companies’ key policy issue had been negotiating the delicate balance between maintaining customers’ privacy and providing them benefits based on their personal data. It was new and controversial territory, sometimes eclipsing the substance of current law, but over time the companies had achieved a rough equilibrium that allowed them to push forward. The instant those phone calls from reporters came in, that balance was destabilized, as the tech world found itself ensnared in a fight far bigger than the ones involving oversharing on Facebook or ads on Gmail. Over the coming months, they would find themselves at war with their own government, in a fight for the very future of the Internet.