Microsoft and Google have teamed up to sue the US federal government over the ability to release information to their customers regarding NSA activities, and other companies may be following suit. The legal battle began after the widespread revelations of NSA privacy violations in various media outlets.
The companies want to defend their right to inform their customers about the NSA spying on its users, insisting that publishing statistics about the scope of surveillance won’t threaten or infringe on national security. The companies assert that they have a constitutionally protected right to discuss the information with their customers under the First Amendment.
Microsoft general counsel, Brad Smith, stated that Microsoft had plans to move forward with the lawsuit. Insisting that the government should release information which “shows the number of national security demands for user content, such as the text of an email.” Facebook’s head lawyer, Colin Stretch, also urges the government to be more open and transparent with the public about their actions.
The government has since stated, via director of national intelligence-James Clapper, that the government would begin releasing its own reports on NSA surveillance activity. However this is hardly satisfactory: self-regulation has classically malfunctioned. The Center for Democracy & Technology said that the government reports would fall short of the level of detail needed to provide meaningful transparency.
“The new data that the government plans to publish is not nearly enough to justify the government’s continued attempts to gag companies like Google and Microsoft and prevent them from engaging in meaningful transparency reporting of their own.. This level of transparency is too little, too late, and is no replacement for hearing directly from Internet companies about how they and their users have been impacted by the NSA’s programs.” – Kevin Bankston, the CDT’s director of free expression.
In a public e-mail further defending their right to disclose the information to their customers, Google stated:
“the government’s decision to publish aggregate information about certain national security requests is a step in the right direction, we believe there is still too much secrecy around these requests and that more openness is needed. That’s why we, along with many others, have called on the U.S. government to allow us to publish specific numbers about both FISA and NSL requests.”
It is clear that transparency is needed, and that governments need to acknowledge this before the technology advances far enough that “unwanteds” or dissidents could be effectively sorted and identified through their online traffic by learning based AI. Not only must companies have a right to share this information with their consumers, but they should have a duty to do so.