The U.S. Department of Justice today announced an agreement that will allow technology and social media companies to publicly report more detailed information about government demands for customer information.
The companies, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo!, filed court actions challenging prohibitions on data disclosures. Under the new agreement, they will be allowed to report on specific categories of information concerning the government’s requests for data. Under the old scheme, the companies were only permitted to disclose the total number of requests they received and the number of customer accounts affected.
The announcement comes 10 days after President Obama unveiled a series of reforms to government surveillance programs. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released a joint statement today saying “the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.”
In a joint statement, the tech companies said the agreement was a “positive step,” but said they will continue to press Congress to consider additional reforms.
“We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of national security requests we receive. We’re pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information,” the companies said.
Tech companies over the past several months petitioned the Washington-based Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow them to provide more detailed reports on the extent of requests for data by the federal government and actions by the court.
“The First Amendment does not permit the government to bar Microsoft from speaking about an issue of great importance to its customers, shareholders and the public while, simultaneously, senior government officials are speaking publicly about the very same subject,” lawyers for Microsoft, represented by a team from Covington & Burling, wrote in court papers filed in June.
In September, Facebook’s attorneys at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr said “the government’s own public release of similar data demonstrates that a prohibition on Facebook’s disclosure is not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest.” The disclosure of aggregate data, Facebook’s lawyers said, “would not compromise the secrecy of the government’s surveillance or acquisition efforts.”
The companies involved in the fights in the FISA court today agreed to withdraw their motions. James Cole, the deputy attorney general, announced the new policy today in a letter to the general counsels of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo!
Under the new guidelines, tech companies can report on categories of information that include the number of national security letters they received requesting customer information; the number of surveillance court orders issued for content; the number of customer “selectors,” or search terms, targeted under court orders; and the number of customer accounts affected by national security letters.
The FBI uses national security letters—a type of administrative subpoena that is outside of court oversight—to acquire information that includes telephone data, email communication and financial information.
The companies will be allowed to publish reports every six months.
“This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance,” Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said in a statement.
Updated at 6:05 p.m.
Mike Scarcella contributed to this report.