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Google mounts legal challenge to surveillance gag orders

Argues free speech trumps security secrecy

Google has filed a legal petition "respectfully requesting" the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) release it from a gag order, and allow the company to tell users how often the NSA comes calling for data.

"We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data – and Google was the first company to release numbers for National Security Letters," the company told El Reg in a statement.

"However, greater transparency is needed, so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures, separately. Lumping national security requests together with criminal requests would be a backward step for Google and our users."

Google has led the way among tech firms on the topic, becoming the first to issue regular transparency reports that show which countries' governments are asking it for details of users' online habits and what information takedown requests come in. Twitter and Microsoft have since started their own reports and others, like Apple, are under pressure to do likewise.

In the court papers, Google says that it is able to publish such data for requests from the FBI and US Department of Justice, but that it can't do the same for FISC orders. In light of media reports on the PRISM case, this stance is hurting the company's reputation among users, it says, and is causing the company financial harm because Google is limited to only commenting on "generalities."

Google wants to publish the number of FISC orders it gets in a year (within a given range such as from 0-99), and also to detail how many of its users are included in such data-trawling expeditions. Such data should be covered by Google's first-amendment rights as a corporation, it argues in the petition.

Facebook and Microsoft have also called for more freedom to disclose when they are forced to hand over users' information. Apple and Yahoo! have also asked to be freed from the gag orders, but Google is the first firm to issue a formal legal petition, albeit a limited one.

How much attention the court will take of Google's petition remains to be seen, but it's a canny PR move by the Chocolate Factory. Google staffers tell El Reg that the current situation is causing real concern among management that the company may be losing the goodwill of its users; goodwill that the firm's founders are keen not to dissipate. ®

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