Facebook, Yahoo Seek Court Permission to Publish Data

Facebook Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for permission to publish more details about the types of national security-related orders they receive from the U.S. government, following a similar petition by Google Inc.

In filings with the secret court in Washington, which issues warrants for collecting foreign intelligence inside the U.S., the companies said today they are seeking approval to disclose aggregate data on requests they receive under national security rules. The companies aren’t authorized to break out the number of requests they get for user data under national security statutes, as opposed to inquiries by law enforcement.

The technology companies, which also include Microsoft Corp., are looking for greater latitude to disclose information about government requests for user data collected by intelligence agencies. The legal efforts come amid reports based on documents from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden that link both companies to a surveillance program conducted by the U.S. National Security Agency, which critics allege undermines civil liberties.

“These news reports have raised serious concerns among people around the world who use Facebook and the public at large about the Internet surveillance activities of the U.S. government and the responses of providers who may receive orders issued by this court,” Chris Sonderby and Carl Nichols, attorneys for Facebook, wrote in the Menlo Park-based company’s complaint.

Aggregate Numbers

In a bid “to be as transparent as possible,” Facebook asked the court for permission to disclose the aggregate numbers of various FISA court orders it has received over a six-month period as well as “the number of requests that called for content of communications versus those that called for transaction or subscriber information.”

“We believe that while governments have an important responsibility to keep people safe, it is possible to do so while also being transparent,” Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, said in a post.

Yahoo’s suit made similar points.

“Specific data about the number of demands that Yahoo receives is important to answer the intense, continuing debate about the government’s use of the FISA process to obtain information from providers,” the company said in its complaint.

‘Important Responsibility’

“We believe that the U.S. government’s important responsibility to protect public safety can be carried out without precluding Internet companies from sharing the number of national security requests they may receive,” Ron Bell, general counsel of Yahoo, said in a blog post.

Officials with some Web companies, including Yahoo and Google, also are planning to meet with President Barack Obama’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology regarding disclosure concerns.

Microsoft and Google today both amended their petitions to the court.

Google asked for authorization to disclose more detailed statistics about the types of national security requests it receives and requested that a court hearing on the matter be to the public.

Google, along with Facebook and Yahoo, publishes periodic reports on government requests for data from the U.S. and other nations.

Subscriber Information

Changes in Microsoft’s complaint include a request to distinguish between the number of orders requiring the contents of communications and those seeking so-called metadata such as subscriber information associated with particular e-mail addresses.

Google and Microsoft have agreed on a schedule for filings in the two companies’ cases, pending court approval, according to lawyers for the companies.

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.

Sheldon Snook, a spokesman for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, declined to comment.

The Google case is In Re motion for declaratory judgement of Google Inc.’s First Amendment right to publish aggregate information about FISA orders, 13-03, U.S. Foreign Intelligence Foreign Surveillance Court (Washington).

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