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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Google Calls U.S. Data Request Disclosures a Step Backward for Users

Even as the government gave tech companies permission to publish some data on national security requests for user data, Google said it did not go far enough.

Facebook and Microsoft on Friday night published data that for the first time included national security requests authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which are broad surveillance orders that prohibit recipients from acknowledging their existence. The companies, led by Google, had been publicly pressing the government to let them publish the data since Tuesday, in an attempt to quell anxiety among consumers after revelations of the government's secret Internet surveillance program.

But the government gave the companies permission to publish the numbers only if they were grouped with all other government requests, including those from state and local governments and for criminal cases, making it very difficult to glean any information about the national security requests.

Google already publishes a transparency report that separates requests by country and type, including search warrants, subpoenas and national security letters. The report does not include FISA requests.

On Friday, the company issued a statement saying that publishing data that combines criminal and national security requests would be even less transparent than the data it currently publishes, and that it would continue to push the government for permission to publish the number and scope of the FISA requests it receives.

“Lumping the two categories together would be a step back for users,” the statement said. “Our request to the government is clear: to be able to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately.”

Google and other tech companies have said they want to disclose the information in part to correct misimpressions about their participation in government surveillance. While some have pushed back on requests, they are forced to comply with lawful orders, yet are unable to talk about them.

Twitter, which also publishes a transparency report but does not include national security requests because of silence orders, issued a statement in support of Google.

“We agree with @Google: It's important to be able to publish numbers of national security requests - including FISA disclosures - separately,” Benjamin Lee, Twitter's legal director, wrote on Twitter.

Facebook had never published data on government requests for user data until Friday, because it had said the data was meaningless if it did not include national security requests. On Friday, Ted Ullyot, Facebook's general counsel, said in a statement that the company was still trying to get permission from the government to publish more detail.

John Frank, Microsoft's deputy general counsel, wrote in a blog post, “We continue to believe that what we are permitted to publish continues to fall short of what is needed to help the community understand and debate these issues.”