In late June, Google and Microsoft both filed suit with the FISA court demanding that the government let them publish the number of federal data requests they receive. The companies had hoped to work out a deal with the government that would allow them to publish the figures, but the government decided to take things into its own hands.
Microsoft is the first of the big tech companies to respond to the Department of National Intelligence’s decision to publish aggregate numbers of people that the NSA has spied on over the last 12 months. The company’s general counsel, Brad Smith, says that it’s a good first step, but that it’s lacking what Microsoft and Google are fighting for.
For example, we believe it is vital to publish information that clearly shows the number of national security demands for user content, such as the text of an email. These figures should be published in a form that is distinct from the number of demands that capture only metadata such as the subscriber information associated with a particular email address. We believe it’s possible to publish these figures in a manner that avoids putting security at risk. And unless this type of information is made public, any discussion of government practices and service provider obligations will remain incomplete.
Smith also notes that Google and Microsoft had been negotiating with the government over the last two months to see if they could work out a deal. They even allowed the government to postpone having to respond to their lawsuits in the interest of working out a settlement. Those negotiations have failed, and Smith says that they have no choice now but to push forward with its lawsuit:
Over the past several weeks Microsoft and Google have pursued these talks in consultation with others across the technology sector. With the failure of our recent negotiations, we will move forward with litigation in the hope that the courts will uphold our right to speak more freely. And with a growing discussion on Capitol Hill, we hope Congress will continue to press for the right of technology companies to disclose relevant information in an appropriate way.
Aside from the above example, Microsoft has a vested interest in publishing data request information to protect its own hide. It’s been implicated far too many times in the recent leaks as a lapdog for the government that’s more than willing to hand over data or install backdoors in Skype. Microsoft vehemently denies the allegations made in the leaks, but the gag orders pertaining to federal data requests prevent the company from mounting a better defense.
As we saw earlier this month, the existence of the NSA’s spy programs could have an enormous impact on the cloud storage industry. Microsoft’s SkyDrive is one of the biggest cloud providers, and it has a lot to lose if people start to distrust American tech companies. It needs to publish these numbers to regain the public’s trust, and the government is the only thing standing in its way. You would think that the Obama administration would be more supportive of the tech industry, but its current culture of secrecy will do nothing but hurt it.