Google Says It Has A First Amendment Right To Release NSA Data Request Numbers

    June 23, 2013
    Zach Walton
    Comments are off for this post.

UDPATE: It was revealed Wednesday that Microsoft has also filed a motion claiming a First Amendment right to publish federal data request numbers.

Original Story Below:

For the past two weeks, Google has been petitioning the government to allow it to publish the exact number of data requests it receives from the NSA. There’s not been a lot of progress made on that front, but now Google is pulling out the big guns in attempt to force transparency.

In a recent filing, obtained by The Washington Post, before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Google argues the gag order that prevents it from publishing the number of data requests it receives is unconstitutional. In particular, Google says that such gag orders violate its First Amendment rights:

“Google seeks a declaratory judgment that Google has a right under the First Amendment to publish, and that no applicable law or regulation prohibits Google from publishing, two aggregate unclassified numbers: (1) the total number of FISA requests it receives, if any; and (2) the total number of users or accounts encompassed within such requests.”

Do you think Google is in the right? Does it have a First Amendment right to release these numbers? Let us know in the comments.

Now, why is this so difficult? What’s wrong with publishing nothing but numbers? Well, it may seem kind of silly to you, but the government argues that even publishing the exact number of data requests it sends would put the nation in danger. Google isn’t asking to publish any specific requests nor it it asking to reveal inner workings of its relationship with the NSA. Google is only asking to publish some numbers, and that has thus far proven to be incredibly difficult.

In the last week, we’ve seen the government slightly budge on the issue. Facebook, Apple and Yahoo all published statements that listed a ballpark figure of data requests it receives from local, state and federal governments. Google was presumably allowed to publish the same figure, but it refrained because “lumping national security requests together with criminal requests … would be a backward step for our users.”

Google took that stance because it already publishes the amount of national security letters it receives from the government. Well, it can publish ballpark figures that say it received between 0 and 999 requests for user data in 2012. It’s not exactly helpful and lumping those figures in with criminal requests would make the numbers even more opaque.

The core argument here is that publishing these wide ranging numbers doesn’t do the public or Google any good. Sure, Google could say it receives anywhere between 9,000 to 12,000 data requests per year, but we wouldn’t know if those requests were from local law enforcement or the NSA. In turn, that unknown factor would only serve to increase consumer distrust for Google and drive them away to competitors.

What makes this all the more silly is that Google isn’t even asking to publish the exact number of data requests. As per the filing, here’s what Google would like to publish:

“Google’s publication would disclose numbers as part of the regular Transparency Report publication cycle for National Security Letters, which covers data over calendar year time periods. There would be two new categories to cover requests made under FISA: (a) total requests received and (b) total users/accounts at issue. Each of these entries will be reported at a range, rather than an actual number. That range would be the same as used by Google in its reporting of NSLs currently, in increments of one thousand, starting with zero. As with the NSL reporting, Google would have a Frequently Asked Questions section that would describe the statutory FISA authorities themselves.”

That doesn’t sound bad at all. The government already lets Google publish a ballpark figure for national security letters, so why not this? What’s the problem with making the federal government more transparent? Doing so would benefit not only the Obama administration’s declining reputation, but it would also immensely help Silicon Valley as well.

As was argued last week, tech companies have just as much to lose from the government keeping quiet as we do. Publishing opaque data request numbers may initially look good for the likes of Facebook and Apple, but Google is taking the higher ground here. It’s fighting to publish these numbers to advance the public debate over the NSA “in a thoughtful and democratic manner.” Lord knows the issue of NSA spying powers needs that right now.

Do you think Google should be allowed to publish data request numbers? Would it really impact national security? Let us know in the comments.

  • http://chatalain.com/chat/al-shellah/index.html شات الشلة

    Google imposes complex laws and strict penalties towards the users of its services

    • norm

      You win the argument, this is true: Google has stricter laws than the American government indeed, and yes they do deserve to be screwed just as bad. I am waiting for an insider Googlite to reveal the goods on their evilness the way Bradley Manning etc. has about the government.

  • Stephen Miller

    This should also fall under the Freedom of Information Act… and goes along with the theory that if there’s nothing to hide, why are they being so stuck up about sharing the information ???

  • Larry

    Our government is doing its best to destroy any form of constitutional rights we have. I agree with Google. i think that any request for information from the NSA should need to be approved by the individual they are requesting information about.

  • https://www.searchen.com John Colascione

    Opinion (While I am still aloud to have one): Google has the right to release the number of requests.

  • http://www.ZoomTanzania.com Kirk

    Google is absolutely doing the right thing. They have no choice but to comply to the requests, but I appload them for going to such great lengths to force the governments hand and at least reveal to the public the extent to which such requests are occuring. I don’t disagree with governments right to request such information when it is warranted. But to not allow the public to know the extent to which it is happening is shameful. Everything remains secure except we would know how often it is happening. It is not right for the government to abuse our trust and continually hide behind arguments such as “national security”. Revealing the number of requests in no way reveals anything classified and in no-way jeapordizes our safety. The government should allow this, and I apprecaite Google taking this as far as they are.

  • Ghostwriter

    If Google is so intent on releasing this information, perhaps the company should also release records of its sales of consumer data to marketing companies, especially considering the fact that the volume is several magnitudes larger.

    After all, if Google is so willing to disclose requests from the NSA, I don’t think it should have any problems revealing the extent of data sold to telecommunication, banking, and marketing companies.

    But I suspect many of us already know that this is nothing more than grandstanding on Google’s part. There is absolutely no reason to release the numbers. None. Apart from some free publicity and goodwill from the ignorant.

  • Micheline Hellwege

    More importantly, WE have the right to know.

  • Alec

    The idea that Google, with it’s blatant avoidance of paying mega bucks in tax, is motivated by some sort of concern for the public good is ludicrous. Google Facebook Apple Yahoo are all the same, there is only one consideration that motivates them about anything and that’s money, and in google’s case, I would be prepared to bet that they have seen searches for ‘alternative and safe search engines’ quardruple since the sh!t hit the fan.

    I’m one of them, install and search with Ixquick, you have nothing to lose only your fear of being tracked by NSA.

  • Alec

    This makes for very interesting reading !!

    Israel and the NSA Scandal By Kevin MacDonald Veterans Today

    “Two Israeli high tech firms (Verint and Narus) with ties to the Israeli secret police (MOSSAD), have provided the spy software for the NSA and this, of course, has opened a window for Israeli spying in the US against Americans opposed to the Zionist state.”–James Petras

    It’s also not surprising that, as noted by James Bamford in his April 2012 article forWired, someone with close connections to Israel secretly gave software designed by NSA to Israel: “the advanced analytical and data mining software the NSA had developed for both its worldwide and international eavesdropping operations was secretly passed to Israel by a mid-level employee, apparently with close connections to the country.” Bamford’s source describes him as “a very strong supporter of Israel.”

    • norm

      Sorry but Israeli’s are smart while Americans are stupid, hence most of the top security software comes from them. Americans are too busy relying on their weapons – and wow, hasn’t that made a difference to your police state, eh wimpies? HAHAHA.. yeah.. arm yourselves to protect from the tyranny yada yada yada your right wingers are fat, stupid, and impotent.

  • Joe

    While it’s a nice play, Once again, companies seeking rights reserved for individuals.

    • Jward

      Clearly they would want transparency? Wouldn’t they? At least that is what they profess…
      TYRANCY at it’s best! And everyone thinks Thomas Jefferson is a “has been” and the constitution should be pliable or flexible as they see fit. Until they see an advantage of its power, then “it’s okay, and is a good, policy”
      What’s good for the goose is good for the gander

      • Jamie

        Thought only American humans had civil rights. “It” (being Google) does not have (should not) have these same rights. The fine folks working behind the scenes there at Google have rights but that doesn’t give Google the right. Big daddy GOV says no, the answer is no.

        • norm

          If big daddy said suck him off, you would down on your knees gagging, you are not an American, you are a muslim woman in saudi arabia.

    • http://www.onlinetv.com Randy Penn

      That is the MAIN reason the 14th amendment was passed. To give all entities rights. Read it carefully, it is actually the “new” Constitution. Everything after it takes away all that was above. Once free and with unalienable rights we are classed as “persons” and “citizens” with rights now given by government. WAY different than the original Constitution and this is where corporations become “persons” too. Everyone is incorporated at birth now, and bonded. It is amazing the scam being perpetrated.

  • http://topshelfcopy.com Doc Sheldon

    I agree wholeheartedly with Google’s stance that release of the numbers is appropriate.
    I find it interesting that Walker’s team decided that the 1st Amendment was the appropriate cornerstone of their petition. There’s still a lot of heated debate over the issue of whether or not the Bill of Rights applies to a corporate entity. If the court finds in their favor, it will set another important precedent.
    Personally, I’d support such a finding, as without it, an argument might be made that search and seizure of corporate property deserves no protection under the 4th Amendment… a slippery slope.

  • lots0

    Google’s numbers are dropping… The Plex is in Panic mode…

    Users are “opting out” of sharing data with the big G in HUGE numbers.
    Because of the impression that Google shares all with Big Brother.
    This is KILLING Googles’s targeted advertising… and that means less profits and slower growth and a falling share price.

    Personally I just disabled all the google products on my Android Phone… Not easy to do(Root and then uninstall all google software and updates) but at least I have some piece of mind that my phone is not being used by the government to track me.

    • http://www.onlinetv.com Randy Penn

      duck duck go forever!

      • http://butterflystorms.blog.ca RC

        Yup. Me too. But it’s watched, too.

    • nots0

      Yeah, that’s not true. Google numbers are not dropping at all since the NSA scandal. Since june 16 Google had a peak number of share price of 910~ and today as we speak is roughly 885. We’re talking about an “amazing drop of” %2.75~, that seems pretty normal to me.

      Of course it’s a bullshit this whole situation, but besides a very specified group of people (and you of course), practically nobody it’s really disabling their google products from their devices causing not a problem at all at their financial statements at least not at short-term.

  • http://www.hirecentrix.com km

    over 300 Million people in this country.. are we that arrogant to think that the Government has all the time on their hands, and really care to listen to the average Joe’s conversation regarding who is doing who, and who bought what shoe at macy’s? Seriously?

    We want more protection from terrorism.. which is why the GOP voted for this ability and right, and also voted against the Media Shield Act, which would have protected the media as well.. We the public felt no outrage at the voting and passing of the Patriot Act, we feel no outrage at the fact that they are voting on a law that allows companies the right to spy on their employees social media.. yes, for real, under the The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act – U.S. employers may soon be able to require employees to fork over their social media passwords.

    Instead of getting angry about laws that were passed over a decade ago, get righteous about your rights today, about the bills passing the Senate and congress’s desk today.. that is of course we may just prefer to complain.. rather than fight for our rights..

    and no, google doesn’t have protection or rights..

    • norm

      You are exactly why the USA has fallen to pieces, may your soul go rot in North Korea.

  • Matt

    Oh, how cute.. Google playing good cop after first denying its role in PRISM in the first place.

    • Maynard Hartman

      Better late than never. Thank you Google for sticking up for my rights when I’m too lazy or uncaring to do it myself.

      • http://www.onlinetv.com Randy Penn

        It’s a side show Maynard. They are doing this to obscure the real problem, direct pipes to NSA (you know? cables linking the servers?). The numbers are about the secret court authorized “inquiries” and the issue is PRISM, the splitting up of the data so that everything the big companies see – NSA sees. Get it?

        Plus you really should get a grip on the fact that FISA is a secret court that does not serve the public and answers to no one. That is as un-American as you can get.

  • http://911billofrights.blogspot.com/ Dennis Sweatt

    Google is caught between a rock and a hard place. They must comply with NSA data mining and they must resist living in the shadows with a shadow government. But this data needs to be mined because the new terrorist lives beneath the shadows in the black.

  • http://Www.darrellgriffin.com Darrell Griffin

    Google is right. End of statement.

  • Jim Hudspeth

    I have no real idea whether Google has a Constitutional right to publish, however I am VERY happy to see it claiming the right and fighting for it. Ultimately I’m more concerned about government secrecy and overreach than I am about foreign terrorists.

  • James

    YES, Google should be allowed to publish data request numbers!

  • http://www.quallitarefeicoes.com Wesley

    SIM, o Google deve ser autorizado a publicar os números de solicitação de dados!

  • norm

    Wait a second – Google hasn’t realize it’s more powerful than the US government yet? They need to ASK?!?!?! Wow.. you American pussies are really screwed.. losers, weak, scared. WIMPS ALL OF YOU!!!

  • http://www.ChefLeeZ.com Chef LeeZ

    I don’t see how the naked numbers can be any harm. Google can tell the gov’t how many times searches were done from your mobile device or your pc and where they went and how long they were there.

    • http://butterflystorms.blog.ca RC

      That’s none of the governments business.

      The government is not that interested in terror as it is in ruling over you. Your media harps upon terror all the time in favour of your government controlling you.

      Look at the Boston Bombing. My god what a travesty of money hungry news shows clamouring to scare the public.

      How many videos have you seen, of only a couple of minutes, on your news showing you the murdering of people by your Predator Drones. What a pity you’re so lost of reality in the USA and the rest of the West. Always suckers for lies by your government that you claim to hate.

      Oh, yes your freedom to carry guns!

      Do you not realize that in the countries you invade everyone. not onside with the USA, is an illegal combatant if he has a gun to protect his country with.

  • http://www.onlinetv.com Randy Penn

    Google is a part of government and has direct feeds to government computers. All this is being obscured with this side show about secret court demands from the NSA.

    “What’s the problem with making the federal government more transparent?”

    Because if Americans knew what government was doing there is a huge chance a revolution would occur. That means the government would be in danger and that is a “national security risk.” They do not care a bit what happens to you all or me, just their operations.

    Good luck and never let google or facebook or the others on your system again. Trust is earned and no amount of bull can change the acts of these people.

  • http://century-club.com James “Rolin” Stone

    I hate to say it, but I’m afraid that what Google is claiming, i.e. “their constitutional rights” seems to me to speak directly to the “corporate personhood” debate. And that were Google able to calim “their constitutional rights”, as a corporation, it would consequently give legal support, via this potential prescendent, to the overall “personhood” argument that began with the Citizen’s United case.

    I do believe it’s well past time to stop this “national security” BS that’s been going on since 9/11, and further that the gov-ment is illegally using the made-up and mostly manipulated “war on terror” as an excuse for re-writing the bill of rights via the Patriot Act, the NDAA, the FISA revisions, etc. in order to tighten control over our own citizenry and the natural resources of everyone else in the world. And while I applaud on one level the idea that someone in the private sector is attempting to stand-up to that kind of political oppression, I would find it more inspiring if it were the individuals behind the corporate logos and their power structures that had stepped up to this task. It would for one thing make it easier to believe that they were really doing it for “us”, the citizens…

  • Name

    Above all else, America is an idea. The idea that we are truly free and that we stand against tyranny in all its forms. I fear that America no longer exists and hasn’t for some time now. In the land of the free and home of the brave, out of fear, we have given up our God given right to be truly free.

    It is so bad now that our government is hunting the man who gave up his entire life to tell the American public the truth about what is going on in the government.

    Shame on us.

    • http://www.NaturalDogTraining.INFO Paul Anderson

      Well said, and well put!

    • joeblow@yahoo.com

      I never saw this before, but the middle 5 letters of America, meric, rearranged, spell CRIME. It would not be so sad if it was not so true. And it reads backwards and forwards “A crime … A crime” starting at either end. Just to make everybody feel better, I had to go and see that. Well, if the shoe fits. Remember Rodney King.

  • Name

    What is truly sad about all this:

    The average American has a greater chance of being killed by a

    gang member than they do a terrorist.

  • Roger M

    Google collects way more data about Internet surfers than is required for targeting advertisements. Now they say, they are not sharing all this Big Data with Govt.

    If they are not doing it for Govt, why is Google collecting Big Data?

    • A

      They aren’t saying they didn’t. They are trying to publicly release the amount of requests they get from the government for this information.

  • joeblow@yahoo.com

    Google should be able to publish the figures as they have requested. They and we have the First Amendment Right to know. Especially in light of the recent revelations of spying on and hoarding data of every type belonging to private, innocent, not guilty, not charged with a crime, not convicted of a crime, American, United States citizens. It’s OUR country.

  • http://www.opace.co.uk Magento Design

    Will be interesting to see what comes of this.

  • Matt

    ” Doing so would benefit not only the Obama administration’s declining reputation, but it would also immensely help Silicon Valley as well.” I find this line funny because polls show Obama’s reputation to be rising. Many historians are already calling him one of the greatest presidents ever.

    • http://butterflystorms.blog.ca RC

      Historians, in the USA, are revisionists right off the bat these days.

    • LOLerskater

      “Many historians are already calling him one of the greatest presidents ever.”

      Seriously? What a joke.

  • http://butterflystorms.blog.ca RC

    First, I don’t know if Google is actually. with forcefulness, looking to get the ‘permission’ to interpret the 1st Amendment in this manner or if this is just shadow boxing to increase its share value. It seems that Google has been surreptitiously involved with the NSA or other government information gatherers for years and has not stood up while it was all secret.

    Since I live in Canada I’ve no protection from the USA getting anything it wants as the US government is only promising to protect Americans and this may be another lie also.

  • http://butterflystorms.blog.ca RC

    First off, the data collection of billions of messages will be keyed to words and phrases and to whom phones whom and to what degree. It’s done automatically and, should there be an overflow of messages they’ll just be ignored.

    Once certain attributes of flagged phone calls is ascertained then the calls are sifted again automatically and certain phone numbers go into another list and on and on until they are flagged as important.

    Of importance will be the ones possibly indicating a terror attack. These will be off a minute amount at a point 000……%.

    However, terror is just a word to ramp fear through the USA population. Terror is not of huge importance in the USA though the media is hyperventilating over the terror fear. Terror is the neo-phrase taking over from communism that has become just too boring. It was of use to abuse, rape and pillage much of Central and South America. This continues but these countries are thoroughly invaded by the CIA virus and have difficulties moving forward. In effect they are contained.

    Now the key word is used to destroy much of the Middle East?North Africa. And this is where the new word terror holds so much might in the citizenry of the USA, Canada and the rest of the West.

    Right wing pundits gey on all kinds of communications efforts just like this one and punish everyone will illogical though such as the horror of the Moslem world. This is so sad because people just don’t take the time in a day to look a little further than the televised hogwash they see days after day.

    The fact remains clear that the USA is the major exported of terror and the USA citizenry lives in fear of very minimal blow-back so far. The cause is the USA and the people dying today by the hundreds and thousands are the Moslem peoples. They are not the ones causing all this trouble. It is the USA and the West.

    Yes, I know I’m on the list. Can’t do anything about that. I will press for the truth though.

    • http://butterflystorms.blog.ca RC


  • Andy

    I’m closing my google+ account and will ask everyone I know to do the same. On facebook I will send messages etc to educate people and close my account. THAT’s IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Jacob

      Facebook is no more secure than Google! Get your facts straight before you freak out!

      • Sean

        Plus most of the data collection is actually through the ISP’s so he might as well just go offline.

    • asdf

      Say goodbye to youtube too then :)

    • Al

      Don’t use the internet

    • Eric

      G+, Facebook, myspace, cell carriers the NSA probes them all for information. Try to actually think about what you are gonna tweak on. Google is actually trying to help by becoming transparent about government data collections.

  • Sammy

    We tell our kids not to accept candy from strangers….. yet when we see some free online service we signup give up all our data.

    Free free free Spy spy spy……

    • tim

      I think you may be a little confused and maybe not the best at reading comprehension. Google is trying to help you see the spies. Take off the tinfoil hat.

      • john

        No, its you who is confused. Google gives up info that google ALREADY has. People seem to forget these companies that are giving up information to NSA, can just sell it to each other…

        • john

          Google doesn’t have prisons and a military.

  • Emanuel Goldstein

    I think most importantly, one must consider that each individual request may encompass multiple targets. I believe that it is crucial that the number of users affected is a more important piece of data to obtain.

  • eagleroc

    Wont the exact number of data requests Google receives from the NSA correlate directly with how many users are on Google? Just tell us how good business is and we can deduce the rest.

  • Crismo_99

    Start using the TOR browser people.
    Look it up

    • Chris
    • SteveDeFacto

      The Tor browser allows java scripts. This lets sites run “integrity checks,” which are malicious scripts that retrieve your IP even through a proxy. Additionally, the Tor network is far too slow for everyday browsing.

      A better choice is to manually configure Firefox to rout traffic through Squid to Privoxy/Tor. Also, the user should install HTTPS everywhere, Cookie Monster, Foxy Proxy, and NoScript plugins. This is the set up I am using and it is roughly the same speed as my normal connection but almost completely secure. Mind you that the end node can still read the traffic your are sending through it if it is not encrypted with ssl.

      • Matthew

        Whonix doesn’t have this problem.

  • Spence

    YES. This is an attempt at further control by the government and an attempt to cover up the recent NSA scandal. I hope Google puts their ideologies before their relationship with the corrupt US government and defies the government in favor of transparency.

  • Danno

    As much as I agree with the sentiment here, we have to remember that corporations are not people, and thus citing the First Amendment for this is just as bad as citing it for political donations.

    • Ant

      Corporations are taxed as person.

      • Johnny

        No shit, Sherlock.

    • Ben

      Do you think other amendments should not apply to organizations? What about unfair search and seizure? The government should be able to take whatever it wants from corporations with impunity? What about housing troops? The right to due process? Trial by jury?

      Which laws have you decided that groups of people, rather than individuals, are no longer subject to? How do you decide? Is it all groups, or just incorporated ones? What about the New York Times? They are a corporation, do they lose the first amendment? If not, how do you define which groups get press protecting and which don’t? If the Koch brothers buy a bunch of newspapers and have more readers than the NYT, do they get to get counted as press, too?

    • john

      Legal Entity
      legal entity (plural legal entities)
      An organization such as a company or trust fund that the law treats as if it were a person, capable of entering into contracts and of being sued.
      legal person

  • Adam

    The reason that the government doesn’t want Google to publish those numbers within a one thousand margin is because Google will then be able to tell the public that it received [unconstitutional spying] requests from the NSA numbering between 215,000,000 and 215,001,000. Which means that throughout 2012 the NSA has been collecting data on every single Gmail user in the country, foreign or not, which amounts to illegal search and siezure on a national scale.

  • Adam

    PUBLISH THEM! It is better PR for Google to be the “honest guy” in the situation. Do it regardless of penalties, Do what’s right and good will come to you. We all know Google records and publishes all sorts of public data why not government requests!!!

  • Richard

    If Google is pulling the First Amendment card, then does it therefore sees itself as an individual or citizen protected under this, thereby, the ‘person’ would be due to pay all taxes not reserved for corporations.
    Feel this could be a shot in the foot by Google and a WinWin for the 99.9%.

    • john

      I know your intention is good, but under the law corporations are considered “legal entities” which is the exact same thing as a person of legal age.

      legal entity (plural legal entities)
      An organization such as a company or trust fund that the law treats as if it were a person, capable of entering into contracts and of being sued.
      legal person

    • james

      When it comes to speech corporations are people too.

  • james

    I thought I voted for transparency – oweblameo has turned in GWBII

  • Randy

    Google only wants to release metadata. The Government feels that releasing even the metadata would do harm.

    The irony (and hypocrisy) is strong with this one.

    • http://www.cognation.net Dean Collins

      Considering the government feels that even releasing the number will harm them…..can what they are doing really be considered reasonable??

  • Robert Taylor

    Well, the supreme court ruled that corporations are people, so this might be interesting to watch.

  • joe smith

    Yes Google has the right to submit the numbers, it is their duty. To whom does the numbers belong? All of US.
    Note: above is not my real name or email, OK, this is not me, it is someone else.

    • irony alert

      Ironic that your name does not belong to all of us.

      • moron alert

        how is that ironic? the point of this whole thing is privacy.

  • Jon p

    If the government had nothing to hide why should it worry?

    If there is no specific how could they have liability in disclosing it? It would be cheaper to defend than convince.

  • #blank rastarockandsea

    Its looks like we do not have any choices anymore on the internet and sound like all the programmers were right after all when in doubt use linux and delocalize your business to a less criticized country its is really bad for business what is happening. Anyway its too late the users already know and are looking for alternatives. Its a certainty just like death and taxes :)