end nsa surveillance
The questions of privacy, surveillance, accountability and proportionality raised can no longer be brushed aside by the traditional invocation of national security

Seven months ago, Edward Snowden was a Hawaii-based employee of a US defence contractor, living an everyday life unknown to the public. At that time, in the US as elsewhere, national security issues also lived in the political shadows, almost as if the cold war had never quite ended. Back then, mainstream politics still tiptoed respectfully around the agencies, such as America's NSA and Britain's GCHQ, in the national security field. This was partly because they felt this was the proper patriotic course, partly because, fearful of terrorism, citizens seemed willing to trust the agencies to protect them from harm, and partly because they simply didn't know much about what the agencies were actually up to. It was another world.

Seven months later, all that has changed for ever. Mr Snowden is on the run from his own homeland. His revelations about the NSA's largely unfettered global intelligence-gathering operations have brought the issues, though not in all cases yet the agencies, out of the shadows and into the public arena. The questions of privacy, surveillance, accountability and proportionality raised can no longer be brushed aside by the traditional invocation of national security. This has made Mr Snowden himself a globally significant figure (and now the Guardian readers' person of the year). Meanwhile, politics and civil society on both sides of the Atlantic - and beyond - have been forced on to a steep and vertiginous learning curve as the importance of the revelations slowly - often too slowly, even in this fast-moving process - sinks in and the need for new rules appropriate to the technological transformation becomes ever clearer.

Another week, another sea change. Mr Snowden's revelations also challenged the trust placed in the world's communications giants through and with whom governments conduct their surveillance. This week the world of the internet - an invention that has liberated, delighted and connected mankind more extraordinarily than any other in history - has been forced to respond to what Mr Snowden unleashed. Facing a crisis about the potential collapse of data privacy, and also no doubt with some consequential commercial uncertainties, some of the world's leading tech companies - with a combined market value of $1.4 trillion - have banded together to demand sweeping new controls.

When the likes of AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo do this, it has immense economic and political consequences. True, the list of signatories is an interestingly incomplete one. True also, the signatories are thinking about their share price as well as civil liberties. True too, the letter to the Obama administration tends to assume that the US can solve, as well as create, the world's problems. But this all recedes into insignificance when compared with the importance of those who have signed and the things they have signed up to. It is time, they say, for governments to address the practices and laws regulating state surveillance of individuals and access to their information. Limits must be codified. A legal framework should apply. Relations between the tech companies and governments here should be transparent. The new settlement must be global.

Seven months after Mr Snowden, the future of the online world is on the line. These proposals, coming from such companies, add up to a serious push towards reform. More big shoulders were put to the wheel on Monday night with the call from dozens of distinguished writers for a digital bill of rights. The pressure on President Obama and Congress just got a lot heavier this week. The pressure is also mounting on David Cameron and the British government to face what is now becoming inevitable here too - the need for a comprehensive new approach to government surveillance that embodies privacy, oversight and proportionality alongside security as the essentials of a democratic approach. Is all this a game-changer? It should be. We have come a very long way in seven months. But there is further to go.