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WikiLeaks has demanded answers from Google about why the company took two and a half years to notify three WikiLeaks staffers that it had handed over their Gmail data to the U.S. authorities.
[company]Google[/company] told the WikiLeaks workers — section editor Sarah Harrison, spokesperson Kristinn Hranfsson and journalist Joseph Farrell — on Christmas Eve that it had been compelled by a Virginia district court in 2012 to hand over their emails, email metadata, contact addresses, draft and deleted emails, and the IP addresses from which they had logged in.
WikiLeaks published the search and seizure warrants on Sunday, along with the emails the three had received from Google explaining that “the legal process was initially subject to a nondisclosure or ‘gag’ order that prohibited Google from disclosing the existence of the legal process” to them. It’s unclear for how long that gag order remained in place.
The whistleblowing group also published a letter it had written to Google chairman Eric Schmidt, demanding a copy of the gag order, a list of all the materials the company supplied to law enforcement, and an explanation for why Google didn’t notify Harrison, Hranffson and Farrell when it received the search warrant, and when it submitted the materials.
We are astonished and disturbed that Google waited over two and a half years to notify its subscribers that a search warrant was issued for their records…
Had Ms Harrison, Mr Hranfsson, or Mr Farrell been aware of such proceedings they could have intervened and protected their interests including their rights to privacy, association and freedom from illegal searches.
The letter, drafted by Center for Constitutional Rights president Michael Ratner, also asked Google whether it had challenged the search warrants or gag order before complying, and whether any other WikiLeaks-linked individuals have also received search warrants for their Google records:
Google and WikiLeaks have an uneasy relationship. Last year WikiLeaks chief Julian Assange published a book that was largely based on the transcript of a lengthy conversation he had with Schmidt in 2011, before Assange claimed asylum in Ecuador’s London embassy in mid-2012. The U.K. police want to arrest Assange for extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning over rape allegations. Assange claims that this is a ruse to have him extradited to the U.S. over Chelsea Manning’s leaking of classified U.S. Army material through WikiLeaks – probably also the case behind the Gmail warrants, though this is not confirmed.
In his book about the Schmidt conversation, Assange maintained that Google’s management is overly close with the U.S. authorities and that Schmidt and his advisor Jared Cohen have acted as agents for U.S. foreign policy in their overseas travels — he memorably called Cohen Google’s “director of regime change.” (Side note: An interesting, if extremely dense, account of Google’s longstanding interactions with U.S. military and intelligence was published on Medium last week.)
[company]Twitter[/company] has previously resisted efforts by the U.S. authorities to extract the records of WikiLeaks followers including activist Jacob Appelbaum and Icelandic politician Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who was also involved in the Manning “Collateral Murder” leak. While that was a warrantless court order, it was accompanied by a gag order that Twitter successfully challenged. WikiLeaks’ Sunday letter to Schmidt recalled part of the 2011 conversation in which Assange referred to that case, and asked Schmidt to tell WikiLeaks if a similar request came Google’s way.
The key question now really is how hard Google fought the U.S. authorities in this free speech case. After all, WikiLeaks is arguably a media organization and Collateral Murder — an evidence-based account of how a U.S. Apache helicopter slaughtered civilians and Reuters journalists in Baghdad – was an act of journalism.
I have asked Google this question, to which it gave something of a non-answer:
We don’t talk about individual cases. Obviously, we follow the law like any other company. When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesn’t we can object or ask that the request is narrowed. We have a track record of advocating on behalf of our users.
This article was updated at 8.50am PT to include Google’s reply to my question.