Telecoms firms alleged to have collaborated with the intelligence services to aid the surveillance of citizens should be investigated by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) for breaches of the rules on multinational behaviour, campaign Group Privacy International has said.
In a complaint lodged with the OECD's British National Contact Point (NCP), the London-based organisation described allegations made against some of the biggest names in the industry - BT, Verizon Enterprise, Vodafone Cable, Viatel, Level 3, and Interoute - which control access to undersea cables critical for international communications traffic.
Under OECD rules, firms had a duty to "respect human rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression," something that would be compromised by allowing GCHQ and others to monitor traffic.
Reports made after leaks by Edward Snowden suggested that firms had potentially gone beyond their legal requirements in aiding surveillance, the group said.
"With each passing day, the public finds out more and more how private companies are colluding with governments to operate mass surveillance programs that intercept our daily phone calls, text messages, emails, and personal data," said Privacy International's head of research, Eric King.
"It is unconscionable to think that the companies that carry our most personal information either refuse to stand up for us, or remain silent when our rights are violated.
Specifically, firms might have colluded with GCHQ on its clandestine 'Tempora' surveillance programme.
"We call on these companies to do the right thing and halt their involvement with mass surveillance and hope the OECD will investigate what steps, if any, the companies took to defend the human rights of their customers," said King.
The meek behaviour of telecoms firms contrasted with that of Internet sites such as Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo that had resisted surveillance more robustly.
The telecoms firms should detail what if any steps they had taken to question or resist GCHQ's surveillance requests and on what legal basis these had been made; future requests should be resisted in compliance with agreements to protect human rights, Privacy International said.
Exactly where the OECD complaint might go is unclear as the organisation has no legal powers of investigation; more than anything the tactic is to drag the issue into the open and perhaps force the telecoms firms to explain the basis on which they grant wiretaps to intelligence organisations.
Britain's GCHQ has previously been accused as part of the Edward Snowden haul of hacking Belgian state telecom firm Belgacom in an attemtp to tap its mobile network from the inside.