Opinion

The backlash over Snowden could hurt US firms

Netscape founder Marc Andreessen has hit the headlines for his comments in a recent interview with CNBC where he labelled Edward Snowden “a traitor”. He went further, adding that if someone looked up ‘traitor’ in the encyclopaedia, they would find a picture of Ed Snowden: “Like he's a textbook traitor. They don't get much more traitor than that.”

While the debate continues to rage over whether Snowden is a traitor for revealing details of the NSA surveillance programme or a patriot, I was actually more interested in some other comments Andreessen made in connection with the effect of Snowden’s revelations.

He said the implications for US technology companies were “very serious and very worrying” because a lot of them got a huge amount of their revenue from outside the US, with some reporting overseas revenues of up to 70%.

“There's a big open question right now how successful our companies will be when they go to sell products overseas," he told CNBC. "I think there are a lot of foreign companies that are very envious of Silicon Valley and America's domination of tech and wish that they could implement protectionist policies. And they are going to use this whole affair as a reason to do that.”

He’s probably right that foreign companies will seek to highlight the NSA spying revelations as something their customers should be aware of when buying US technology. It’s an understandable response. We all know how easy it is to take that approach – and Andreessen might be aware of it to – because it’s one the US has employed very publicly against Chinese technology companies such as Huawei.

Not being privy to deals in the UK where indigenous technology companies are pitted against US rivals, I can’t speak for whether UK businesses are using Snowden’s revelations to sow fear and doubt in the minds of their customers. But as quite a few of them rely on US technology, it might be difficult.

In any case, while Andreessen’s argument about the potential damage to US companies reflects a real concern, it’s not really the main issue for anyone outside the US. The major concern for customers in the UK, France, Germany, China or wherever, is the ability of a US government agency to access their data via US technology companies.

That said, I’d be interested to know whether the Snowden revelations have had much effect on customers’ attitudes towards US companies in the UK. I suspect they haven’t. Even where they have, I think the effect is likely to be much less than it could be in France or Germany which have a far less engaged relationship with the US. So I doubt many UK customers are asking their channel partners whether buying technology from Cisco or HP or Microsoft will make them more vulnerable to the NSA’s intelligence gathering activities.

Funnily enough, there might be more of a response in the US where some citizens who are comfortable with the notion of the NSA spying on potential enemies of their country might not take kindly to it spying on its own citizens.

This was first published in June 2014

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