Government told Yahoo: Hand over data or pay $250,000 per day

Federal officials threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 per day if it did not hand over information about its users to the government, according to unclassified court documents released on Thursday.

The threat is included in more than 1,500 pages of formerly classified papers stemming from a court challenge to the National Security Agency’s (NSA) demand that it hand over data in 2007 and 2008. Yahoo said that it found the law unconstitutional and refused to hand over the information, though it lost the legal challenge against the order.

The newly declassified order showed that in 2008, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court told Yahoo that the government did not need a warrant to get the information, since it was being gathered for intelligence about people outside the U.S. The government’s request, it added “is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

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Yahoo general counsel Ron Bell said the ability to disclose details about the court case is a victory for the company, given that the secretive FISA court and a review court rarely release documents to the public.

“We consider this an important win for transparency, and hope that these records help promote informed discussion about the relationship between privacy, due process, and intelligence gathering,” he said in a blog post on Thursday afternoon.

The FISA court provides a check on government spying activities but has come under fire from civil liberties advocates for being too opaque and often siding with the government.

The documents were posted on an Office of the Director of National Intelligence website on Thursday evening. 

Still, some documents from the court challenge remain classified. Even Yahoo lawyers have not been allowed to see them, Bell said.

“Our fight continues,” he wrote, while pledging to have additional materials released to the public.

“Users come first at Yahoo,” Bell wrote. “We treat public safety with the utmost seriousness, but we are also committed to protecting users’ data. We will continue to contest requests and laws that we consider unlawful, unclear, or overbroad.”

Tech companies have been among the most vocal critics of the NSA’s collection of data about people in the U.S. and around the globe. Disclosures from government leaker Edward Snowden have caused users to grow distrustful of companies like Yahoo, Facebook and Google.

According to some estimates, the distrust could lead to a loss of tends of tens of billions of dollars in lost profits.

Late last year, Yahoo teamed up with eight other major tech companies to fight for reform as part of the Reform Government Surveillance coalition.  

Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNewly declassified memos detail extent of improper Obama-era NSA spying Overnight Tech: FCC won't fine Colbert over Trump joke | Trump budget slashes science funding | Net neutrality comment period opens Appeals court decision keeps lawsuit against NSA surveillance alive MORE, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the release of the documents was a positive sign and should compel lawmakers to reform the NSA. 

“The secrecy that surrounds these court proceedings prevents the public from understanding our surveillance laws,” he said in a statement shared with The Hill. “Yahoo should be lauded for standing up to sweeping government demands for its customers' private data."

“But today's release only underscores the need for basic structural reforms to bring transparency to the NSA's surveillance activities," he added.

This story was updated at 8:36 p.m.