Microsoft drops lawsuit after feds move to limit gag orders on tech companies

Microsoft drops lawsuit after feds move to limit gag orders on tech companies
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Microsoft has dropped a lawsuit against the U.S. government after the Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to limit the routine use of gag orders on technology companies in connection with ongoing investigations.

The software giant sued the Justice Department in April of last year, asking a federal judge in Seattle to strike down a statute in a major data privacy law that governs the use of these secrecy orders by the federal government when it comes to warrants on electronic data. 

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Microsoft argued in its April 2016 complaint that the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was signed into law more than three decades ago, allows courts to order companies to “keep its customers in the dark when the government seeks their email content or other private information.” 

But the company revealed late Monday that it was taking steps to dismiss the lawsuit after the Justice Department implemented new policies to address the issues. 

Specifically, the Justice Department’s new binding guidelines halt courts from routinely imposing gag orders that prevent technology companies from informing customers when their electronic records have been turned over to investigators, The Washington Post reported late Monday. 

The rules also largely ban the use of indefinite gag orders preventing companies from ever informing customers that their records had been turned over. 

Microsoft hailed the development as a victory for privacy and free expression, saying that it came after months of advocating by the firm and other groups.

“Until today, vague legal standards have allowed the government to get indefinite secrecy orders routinely, regardless of whether they were even based on the specifics of the investigation at hand. That will no longer be true,” Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith wrote in a blog post late Monday.

“The binding policy issued today by the Deputy U.S. Attorney General should diminish the number of orders that have a secrecy order attached, end the practice of indefinite secrecy orders, and make sure that every application for a secrecy order is carefully and specifically tailored to the facts in the case,” Smith wrote. 

The Microsoft chief noted, however, that the firm is not done pushing the government to improve the use of the secrecy orders.

Microsoft has a history of challenging the U.S. government over data search requests. The tech giant is currently locked in a fight with the Justice Department over whether data stored by American companies overseas is covered by a U.S. warrant, a years-long case that the Supreme Court is set to decide this term.