Microsoft has some bitter rivals in the technology industry, but when it comes to thwarting government intrusion on customer privacy the software giant has plenty in common with its competitors. Microsoft and its tech friends are celebrating a milestone in litigation efforts to block a U.S. government search warrant that would force it to hand over consumer e-mail stored in Ireland.
Ten groups filed their “friend of the court” briefs in New York on Monday, according to Brad Smith, General Counsel and executive vice president of Legal and Corporate Affairs at Microsoft. Then 10 brief are signed by 28 technology and media companies, 35 computer scientists, and 23 trade associations and advocacy organizations that represent millions of members around the world, he said.
“Seldom has a case below the Supreme Court attracted the breadth and depth of legal involvement we’re seeing today,” Smith said in a blog post. “Collectively, these briefs make one conclusion unmistakably clear. This case involves not a narrow legal question, but a broad policy issue that is fundamental to the future of global technology.”
The Root of the Issue
Protecting customer information is at the root of the issue. Microsoft and other tech companies store private communications -- including photos, e-mail, and documents -- in datacenters close to where its users live and work so they can access their information quickly and securely. For example, Microsoft stores e-mail in its Ireland data center for customers in Europe.
“We believe that when one government wants to obtain e-mail that is stored in another country, it needs to do so in a manner that respects existing domestic and international laws,” Smith said. “In contrast, the U.S. government’s unilateral use of a search warrant to reach e-mail in another country puts both fundamental privacy rights and cordial international relations at risk. And as today’s briefs demonstrate, the impacts of this step are far-reaching.”
Smith has said repeatedly that it doesn’t have to be this way. He pointed to treaties with nations around the world that allow the U.S. government to seek the information they need without violating privacy protections of citizens. Smith also noted that there is plenty of room to modernize the agreements.
“Law enforcement plays a vital role in investigating crimes and keeping our communities safe,” Smith said. “We are not trying to prevent them from playing this role, but we believe reforms are needed that ensure that they do their work in a way that promotes vital privacy protections and builds the trust and confidence of citizens in the U.S. and around the world.”
We caught up with Greg Sterling, vice president of Strategy and Insights for the Local Search Association, to get his take on the tag team approach to combating consumer privacy. He told us perceptions that these tech giants have collaborated with the National Security Agency has damaged their reputations internationally and threatens to harm their economic interests outside the U.S. over the long term.
“The current stand these companies are taking against complying with U.S. search warrants for data stored overseas is both the right thing to do legally and morally and in their self interest to bolster their reputations among non-U.S. governments and users,” Sterling said.
Tech companies that signed the briefs include Verizon, Apple, Amazon, Cisco, Salesforce, HP, eBay, Infor, AT&T, and Rackspace. The BSA | The Software Alliance and the Application Developers Alliance are also on board, as are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.
What’s more, five of the country’s leading civil liberties organizations from across the political spectrum, including the Center for Democracy & Technology, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation also signed the brief. On the international scene, Digital Rights Ireland, an organization focused on the protection of privacy in Ireland and the European Union, signed a brief, along with other European civil liberties groups.
Likewise, 17 major news and media companies participated. Those include CNN, ABC, Fox News, Forbes, the Guardian, Gannett, McClatchy, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, and The Seattle Times. Finally, 35 computer science professors from 20 of the country’s leading universities have also signed on.