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Obama calls for tech support

by
Image of Masonic-style eye on digital background of 1s and 0s

Abstract image by Nomadsoul via iStockphoto.com

Angry about the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov? Freaked out that the National Security Agency is vacuuming up every piece of data about you except for your snail mail? Have some strong opinions about it all that you'd like to give President Barack Obama in an in-person meeting?

That, and about $356,000 will get you in the door. That's the average amount contributed by employees and family members of the 15 tech companies whose top executives meet today with Obama, according to data from Influence Explorer.

The meeting was prompted by an open letter from the tech firms calling for reform of the ongoing government surveillance of electronic communications in the United States and around the world. Much of that surveillance was revealed by whistleblower and former Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden, a systems administrator who was able to access the NSA's deepest secrets.

Among Snowden's revelations: Some companies have been at worst complicit or at best extremely negligent in protecting customer data from the government snooping programs. Some critics argue that aspects of those programs violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, as a federal judge ruled yesterday. Some of the companies making those arguments are represented at today's meeting, including AT&T ($484,000 in contributions to Obama), Yahoo! and Google ($273,000 and $1.6 million, respectively), Microsoft ($1.6 million), Apple ($515,000) and Facebook ($126,000).

The NSA paid some of the tech companies to separate the user data of foreigners from U.S. citizens. It might have been a penny-wise-but-pound-foolish decision to accept the NSA's cash: Bloomberg News reported last month that the potential lost sales to foreign customers outraged at the breach of their privacy could cost U.S. companies $35 billion through 2016.

Short of shutting down the NSA, there may be little Obama can do to restore the tarnished overseas reputations of America's tech tattlers, but the president can offer plenty in consolation prizes. That $35 billion in losses is just a rounding error when it comes to the taxpayer money that the tech giants stand to benefit from. The companies represented at Tuesday's meeting all have other issues before the federal government. Apple and Google have billions in "stateless" -- that is, tax free -- profits socked away offshore, while AT&T needs government approval of its acquisition of low cost cellphone provider Leap Wireless. Even Etsy ($3,500 in contributions to Obama), the sales platform for artisans and cottage industrialists, is seeking a small business exemption for its merchants should Congress require online retailers to collect state sales taxes from their customers.

Meanwhile, Facebook and other firms have won bipartisan support after lobbying Congress for legislation that would allow them to inform users how many requests for customer data they receive from the NSA and how many accounts are effected. Obama opposes the bill.

In addition to the fallout from Snowden's revelations, the companies will discuss how the government hires tech and IT companies and the ongoing problems with implementation of the Affordable Care Act.