Google files petition to publish number of FISA requests for user information

Google filed a petition on Tuesday that asks the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to publish the aggregate number of national security requests it receives for user data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), citing its First Amendment rights.

The search company took this unprecedented step in the wake of the revelations about a surveillance program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) that monitors Internet traffic, called PRISM.

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Google has pressed the government to allow it to publish the number of FISA court requests it receives separately from other criminal requests, such as subpoenas and search warrants. Google and other tech companies have waged a campaign to maintain consumer trust in its protection of user privacy and handling of users' personal data following reports about the NSA's surveillance programs.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company argues that sandwiching the number of FISA requests in with other types of government requests for user information is "a backward step" for its consumers.

In its petition to the secretive court, Google asked to publish the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any, and the number of users or accounts tied to 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. 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," a Google spokesman said.

"Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests — as some companies have been permitted to do — would be a backward step for our users," the spokesman continued.

Media reports initially said that the NSA had been given direct access to the servers of nine U.S. Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo. Tech companies have fiercely denied those reports and participation in any surveillance program that gives the government access to its servers.

This past week, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and Yahoo have published data on the aggregate number of government requests for user information they have received in recent months.  However, the government has barred companies from breaking out the number of FISA requests they have received.

Google, in particular, has aggressively pushed back against this restriction.

In the complaint filed Tuesday, Google said it is seeking to repair its reputation with its users in light of these recent "false or misleading" media reports about PRISM, citing stories in The Guardian and The Washington Post.

"Google's reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media, and Google's users are concerned by the allegations," the petition reads. "Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities. Moreover, these are matters of significant weigh and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner."

The search company argues it is protected by its First Amendment rights to publish that data.

"Google respectfully requests that this court issue a declaratory judgment indicating that Google may lawfully disclose such information," according to the complaint.