Silicon Valley firms at the center of an ongoing surveillance scandal are renewing their legal push to reveal details about how often the US government obtains information about their users.
In a new filing that appeared on Friday, Microsoft again asked America’s secret spy court to declare that it has a First Amendment right to disclose how many so-called FISA letters (a surveillance demand aimed at foreigners that can also ensnare Americans) it receives. The software giant, along with Google, has been negotiating with the government for months to disclose the numbers, but the talks resulted in six different extensions and finally broke down altogether in August.
The break-down has led Microsoft to file a renewed complaint, asking to reveal the specific number of surveillance requests it receives; in earlier complaints, Microsoft and Google had asked for the right to reveal the numbers as a range but, according to the new filing, the FBI refused.
The tech companies acknowledge that the government may be justified in concealing information about specific surveillance targets; but they claim that blanket gag orders that forbid them from disclosing the number of requests they receive violate the Constitution’s free speech guarantees.
In related new filings, the federal government agreed to file its long-awaited response to the First Amendment complaints by September 30.
The government also agreed to respond on that date to a separate legal action by Yahoo, which is fighting to declassify a 2008 court decision that gagged the company from disclosing the creation of the secret program known as PRISM — a drop-box system that allows the National Security Agency to easily collect information about the tech companies’ customers.
The new court filings are part of an uncomfortable legal and public relations battle in which the tech companies are trying to push back against perception that they colluded with the federal government in expanding surveillance.
In response to the tech companies’ initial lawsuits, national security czar James Clapper announced that the intelligence services will announce a “transparency report” of their own. The new court filings appear to reflect the tech firms’ skepticism of the proposal. So far, the government has agreed to let companies publish some numbers about surveillance requests — but not a break down of specific types of requests such as FISA letters versus National Security Letters (which target Americans).
Here’s the September 30 briefing schedule, as well as Microsoft’s amended First Amendment complaint: