Microsoft rivals such as Amazon and Apple and other major technology and media companies are teaming up with the software maker in its legal battle against the U.S. government's demand to release the contents of a private email stored in servers in Dublin, Ireland.
A total of 28 technology and media companies, including eBay, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Rackspace and Salesforce.com, as well as wireless carriers Verizon and AT&T, have pledged their support for Microsoft in 10 friend-of-the-court briefs calling for the protection of the privacy of data stored in servers out of the United States.
Twenty-three trade organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Press Club and The Software Alliance, have also vowed their support for Microsoft.
"Seldom has a case below the Supreme Court attracted the breadth and depth of legal involvement we're seeing today," said Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs. "Collectively these briefs make one conclusion unmistakably clear. This case involves not a narrow legal question, but a broad policy issue that is fundamental to the future of global technology."
At the heart of the case is a court order issued by federal judge Loretta Preska of the District Court of Manhattan requiring Microsoft to hand over the contents of an email stored in its servers in Ireland. The email owner's identity has been withheld, but Microsoft says it stores data such as email, photos and documents in data centers abroad for the simple reason that clients can retrieve their data more quickly and securely.
Speaking for Microsoft, Smith, who has become the standard bearer of what has become an industry-wide battle for user privacy, has argued that the government must go through existing international channels to obtain the Dublin-based email, similar to the process it would have to undergo if it is going after physical documents.
However, it is disturbing to find that the government views personal communications such as email simply as "business records" that belong not to the persons sending and receiving the emails but to the cloud provider that stores them, Smith claims.
"The government puts at risk fundamental privacy rights Americans have valued since the founding of the postal service," Smith said. "Because business records have a lower level of legal protection, the government claims it can use a different and broader legal authority to reach emails stored anywhere in the world."
Verizon, in its amicus brief, says ordering Microsoft to break existing Irish rules to comply with a U.S. warrant could threaten Microsoft's business and encourage foreign governments to believe that they can make claims to data stored in the U.S.
"The Russian government, for example, might demand that a local affiliate of a U.S. cloud services provider disclose the data of a U.S. company negotiating a large corporate transaction with a Russian state-owned enterprise," Verizon stated (pdf). "Following the District Court's reasoning, Russian officials could order the provider's Russian affiliate to obtain the target's data from the U.S. and turn it over to the Russian authorities in Moscow."
Microsoft and other technology companies have a keen interest in protecting user privacy because they could risk losing big business, particularly from overseas governments and clients, if they do not step up their privacy measures in a country where Edward Snowden has exposed the government's overarching reach into the private lives of its citizens.
Earlier this year, Smith said he was informed by a high-ranking German official that the state will cease using Microsoft's data centers if the company does not win this case. Another executive from German media conglomerate Axel-Springer also reportedly told Smith that journalists have become wary of storing their data in Microsoft's cloud servers for fear of unauthorized access by the U.S. government.
Microsoft filed its appeal before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York last week.