June 18, 2013 10:24 pm

Google challenges US surveillance gag

Google has challenged the US ban on disclosing the extent of its involvement in secret government surveillance, in the latest move by an internet company to counter the damage caused by the recent National Security Agency internet spying scandal.

The search company on Tuesday petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which issues the surveillance orders, claiming a first amendment right to disclose the total number of cases it is drawn into in any one year.

The legal motion marks the most forceful attempt yet by a US internet company to rebuff reports that it has been involved in widespread surveillance operations under an NSA programme known as Prism. If successful, it would become the first to be able to reveal the extent of its involvement in Prism, which has caused widespread unease outside the US.

“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 company said in its petition to the court.

Other leading internet companies that have been embroiled in the scandal have in recent days disclosed the total number of US government disclosure orders they are subject to, lumping together local law enforcement and other requests with the FISA and other national security orders they receive. Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo have all made broad disclosures along these lines.

The companies are divided over the best approach to use with the government in pushing for more transparency. A lawyer for one tech company complained that Google’s move into the court system would only serve to impede others’ informal negotiations.

“Anyone familiar with the state of play at this point knows that inserting a court motion into this process just means transparency with regard to these national security requests will take longer and be less likely in the end,” the lawyer said. “The other companies were well aware of this step as an option but knew it may only slow down the process.”

The strategic dispute could stem in part from variations in starting points for the different companies. Google already reveals more detailed information than others about certain classes of government order – such as national security letters that are not issued by the FISA court – and argues that supplying a single aggregate number would be a backward step that would leave its users without any real idea of the extent of the secret surveillance.

Echoing arguments made by internet freedom groups in the US in recent days, Google also said in its legal filing that greater disclosure was important to ensure an informed public debate about the US government’s surveillance operations.

“These are matters of significant weight and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner,” it said.

Along with Twitter, Google has historically struck a strong public stance over its determination to defend its users’ rights against government intrusion, increasing the potential damage from being implicated now in extensive surveillance.

In its most aggressive previous legal campaign in the US, it successfully challenged a Department of Justice request in 2006 to hand over the search histories of its users, which had been ordered in connection with the Child Online Protection Act.

“Transparency is a core value at Google and the company is committed to informing its users and the public about requests it receives from government agencies around the world for the production of its users’ information and/or communications,” it said.

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