Google, Facebook, Microsoft seek right to tell users what is going on

Major Internet companies are urging the Obama administration to give them permission to disclose more details about national security requests for their users’ data.

Google sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller, arguing that the information would prove that the company is not turning over massive batches of its users’ sensitive personal data to the government.

“Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide,” Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote in the letter. 

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Microsoft and Facebook quickly issued statements echoing Google’s call to reveal information about the number and scope of national security requests for data, including court orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). 

Companies are currently barred from discussing or even acknowledging the existence of FISA orders.

The stakes are high for the Internet companies, which depend on users trusting them with their most sensitive personal information. 

Users could begin limiting the information they share over email and on social media sites if they believe it isn’t safe from the prying eyes of government agents.

The tech industry’s commitment to privacy is being challenged by revelations about a National Security Agency program, called PRISM, to monitor Internet users. 

Initial reports indicated that the NSA had tapped directly into the central servers of nine U.S. Internet companies: Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple and PalTalk.

All nine companies quickly issued statements denying that they had given the government direct access to their servers. The companies also posted public blog posts to reassure users of their commitment to defending their privacy.

In his letter, Google’s Drummond said the company worked “tremendously hard” to earn users’ trust. 

“Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users’ data are simply untrue,” Drummond wrote. 

“However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation.”

Microsoft agreed that greater transparency about the volume and scope of the FISA orders would help “the community understand and debate these important issues.”

Both Microsoft and Google already reveal statistics about government requests for user data in regular “transparency reports,” but the statistics do not include the FISA orders due to the nondisclosure requirements.

“Our recent Report went as far as we legally could and the government should take action to allow companies to provide additional transparency,” Microsoft said.

Facebook does not issue transparency reports, in part, it said, because government restrictions on disclosure necessarily make them incomplete. 

“We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond,” Ted Ullyot, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a statement. 

“We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information.”

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper confirmed the Internet surveillance program’s existence last week, but said the government does not “unilaterally” obtain information from Internet companies. 

He said that the Internet companies provide user data to the NSA only after receiving an order approved by a secret FISA court. 

Those courts only approve information requests if there is a “foreign intelligence purpose” and the target is “reasonably believed” to be outside of the United States, Clapper said.

He argued that the program has provided information that has been critical for thwarting terrorists and hackers.