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Google fights secret court over right to reveal user data request stats

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In the wake of the recent NSA surveillance leak, Google on Tuesday filed a motion with the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), arguing that gag orders surrounding the court’s request for user data violates the Internet giant’s constitutional rights to free speech.

The petition is the latest attempt by Google to increase transparency around how and why the company shares users’ information – a topic of particular importance following recent reports that claim the U.S. federal government has “direct access” to the servers of Google and eight other major technology companies.

“Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests … would be a backward step for our users.”

Google releases an semi-annual Transparency Report, which provides details and statistics surrounding government requests for user data. The company recently became the first to include information about the issuance of National Security Letters, which often come with the stipulation that recipients keep the letters a secret. Now Google wants to provide the “total number” of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests for user data, as well as the number of accounts affected by those requests.

“We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data—and Google was the first company to release numbers for National Security Letters,” Google said in a statement. “However, greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately. Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests – as some companies have been permitted to do – would be a backward step for our users.”

Over the past week, Facebook and Apple, two other companies identified in leaked documents detailing the National Security Agency’s PRISM internet surveillance program, released details about government requests for user data. Both, however, only provided ranges in the number of requests and affected users. Neither company identified which requests came from FISC, or were issued for national security purposes, likely due to the very gag orders Google seeks to weaken.

Other companies highlighted in NSA documents include Microsoft, Skype (a Microsoft subsidiary), AOL, Yahoo, PalTalk, and YouTube (a Google subsidiary).

A reading of Google’s motion to FISC provides insight into just how limiting the gag orders can be. For example, the company seeks to publish “the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any.” The inclusion of “if any” exists due to the fact that Google is legally forbidden to admit that it has received FISA requests. Later in the document, the filing notes that, “Nothing in this Motion is intended to confirm or deny that Google has received any order or orders issued by this Court.” This is there for the same reason.

Civil liberty advocates have praise Google’s complaint with FISC. In a statement, the ACLU called the company’s petition a “step in the right direction,” but argued that “the public is entitled to know even more than the limited information Google wants to share.”

See Google’s full motion to FISC below:

Google’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – Motion for Declaratory Judgment by Andrew Couts