Tech Giants Protest Government Gag Orders Regarding Information Requests

by Matt Klassen on May 26, 2014

Over the past year prominent tech companies have come under suspicion for their alleged participation in the controversial surveillance activities of the American intelligence community. Last summer documents leaked from infamous whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed that the NSA had “direct access” to the servers of these companies, allegations companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo have vehemently denied.

But the problem for these companies is that they’ve never been able to give their side of the story, arguing that gag orders put in place regarding information requests from the government not only prevent the sort of transparency and honesty the American public is now pushing for, but violates the free speech rights of the tech firms as well.

In a court order unveiled late last week, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo claim that gag orders labelled “national security letters,” or NSLs, are a “prohibition on speech [that] violates the First Amendment.” Briefly put, this is a story about passing the buck, and tech companies want you the public to know that in this great privacy debate they are nothing more than pawns of the great intelligence machine…much like you actually.

“The government has sought to participate in public debate over its use of the NSL statute,” the companies wrote in a brief filed with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in April. “It should not be permitted to gag those best suited to offer an informed viewpoint in that debate; the parties that have received NSLs.”

The problem with NSLs, particularly for these tech companies, is that they stand as clandestine requests to Web and telecom companies for personal information such as “name, address, length of service,” among other such information that might be relevant to an ongoing national security investigation. Such requests require no warrant, no court authorisation, and thus are not regulated by any other body than the one making the information request.

While tech and telecom firms are generally complicit with such requests, understandably not wanting to be a scapegoat should a denial result in a catastrophic disaster, one can perhaps appreciate the uncomfortable position these companies are in. They have been entrusted with our personal information, they don’t want to give it up, but Big Brother has a lot of leverage to make these firms play ball.

The companies themselves have stated that they do not want to disclose information about the information requests that might jeopardize legitimate investigations, but rather simply make public the “more detailed aggregate statistics about the volume, scope, and type of NSLs that the government uses to demand information about their users.”

So not able to reject these NSL requests (and perhaps not willing to risk the consequences) several tech firms have decided to take the only step left open to them, tell the public everything their legally able to divulge. To that end not only are these companies playing the oft-overused free speech card, but they’re using the publicly accessible court documents as a way of letting everyone know that the American government is still playing fast and loose with our personal information, without checks and balances and without oversight.

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Written by: Matt Klassen. www.digitcom.ca. Follow TheTelecomBlog.com by: RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube.

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