Four of the world's biggest technology companies have gone to court to protest the gag order that prevents them from disclosing the kind of information they are compelled to turn over to the U.S. government.
In court documents filed at the 9th Circuit Court in California, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo said that the federal government is violating the companies' rights to free speech by prohibiting them from revealing information about the number of national security letters (NSL) they receive from the government. The case is currently on appeal.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uses NSLs to compel companies to submit information about their customers to the government. In 2001, when former President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, the FBI gained more authority in the use of NSLs. Privacy advocates have also reported that the use of NSLs by the FBI has become even more widespread since then.
"The government attempts to sidestep the serious First Amendment issues raised in this case by arguing that there is no First Amendment right to disclose information gained from participation in a secret government investigation. That is incorrect," the companies said.
They also noted that they do not wish to harm the outcomes of specific investigations, but they want to "publish more detailed aggregate statistics about the volume, scope and type of [national security letters] that the government uses to demand information about their users." Many companies have one-time agreements with the government to disclose broad information about the number of NSLs they receive, such as "0-999," but they wish to continue the practice without asking for permission every time.
"People have the right to know when and how governments request their information. We hope the court recognizes how damaging it can be when laws prevent companies from being open about government actions that can infringe on civil liberties," a Google spokesperson said.
More and more companies have challenged the NSLs since former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden's leaks on government surveillance, saying they have suffered damaged reputations and bottom lines.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has recently given all four companies, along with Apple and Twitter, the highest ratings in protecting customer information from shady turnover requests from the government. In its Who Has Your Back? 2014: Protecting Your Data From Government Requests report, the EFF examined companies' privacy policies and reports and based their ratings on six criteria: warrant, notice, transparency, law enforcement, courtroom battles and congressional battles. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and Twitter all received the highest marks, while Amazon, AT&T and Snapchat were the worst offenders.
"Tech companies have had to work to regain the trust of users concerned that the US government was accessing data they stored in the cloud. This seems to be one of the legacies of the Snowden disclosures: the new transparency around mass surveillance has prompted significant policy reforms by major tech companies," says the EFF in its report.