Justice Department gets earful from Congress over Microsoft case

The Justice Department faced withering criticism from House lawmakers at a Thursday hearing for its opposition to Microsoft-backed legislation aimed at limiting the geographical scope of a U.S. warrant. 

The House Judiciary Committee hearing focused on a bill aimed at resolving a legal battle in which Microsoft resisted a U.S. warrant forcing it to turn over a customer’s email account stored in Ireland.

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Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said Microsoft is "being bullied by the Justice Department," comparing the fight to a case where another country was trying "to come haul your ass in" without consulting the United States. 

"You are asking for the U.S. courts to summarily order U.S. corporations … to deliver to you something from another country and circumvent that other country's opportunity to tell you 'yes' or 'no.' That is essentially what you are asking for," Issa told a Justice Department official. 

The bill, called the LEADS Act, would set limits on what kind of information the government can force a U.S. company to hand over when that data is stored overseas. Under the change, the government could use a warrant to get access only to Americans’ data stored overseas, not foreigners' data. 

"It is Congress's role to legislate. And looking back at a 30-year law based on where we are today, I don't think is logical," said Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.), one of the bill's key sponsors. 

Microsoft has strongly backed the legislation. Microsoft President Brad Smith, who testified Thursday, said the Justice Department's position would force the company to risk the trust of its users as it focuses more and more on its cloud technology. 

"That is not a recipe for the success of the U.S. technology sector, and it is not a recipe for ensuring people have trust in technology," Smith said. 

Deputy Assistant Attorney General David Bitkower testified that the legislation could cut off a tool used during law enforcement investigations. The Justice Department has warned that if this tool is cut off, the government will have to rely on a slow-moving treaty system to obtain the same information. 

Everyone in the room agreed that the current process of sharing law enforcement data between countries is broken and will get worse as technology products are used more broadly around the world, further ignoring national borders. 

The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration has recently begun negotiations with the United Kingdom, which would allow that country to obtain information about British citizens directly from U.S. tech companies. 

Any final agreement would require Congress to act, and lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee were not pleased they had to learn about it from news reports. The Justice Department has since briefed the committee. 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said the negotiations are "cause for great concern" because of privacy and civil liberty protections. She worried that the U.K. does not have the same legal standards as the United States. While Britain is a United States ally, she said, it does not "have the First Amendment."