Google, Microsoft still battling for right to reveal feds' data demands

The battle over data disclosure continues.  Google and Microsoft have been unable to convince U.S. officials that the two tech giants should be allowed to provide more details about the government’s demands for information about the online activities of certain Internet users.

“With the failure of our recent negotiations, we will move forward with our litigation,” said Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith in a blog post Friday.

The two companies sued the U.S. government earlier this summer, arguing they have a First Amendment right to tell the public how often they receive demands for user data under national security laws.  Stung by reports of extensive government surveillance efforts, the companies want to make the case that they’re not just handing over user data on a wide scale.

But current secrecy rules only allow the tech companies to report those data demands in an aggregate number, lumped in with routine law enforcement requests and the like.

Both the government and the tech companies, in fact, are attempting to reassure a public that’s been outraged over recent news reports related to leaks by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. National Intelligence Director James Clapper promised Thursday that his agency will start publishing an annual report on how often the government issues legal demands for records on Internet usage, phone calls and the like.

And just to show how tech-savvy these intelligence guys are, Clapper made the announcement on his agency’s Tumblr account.

But tech companies and open-government groups say Clapper’s announcement doesn’t go far enough. They want to be allowed to report in more detail on the numbers of users affected by such requests, the legal authority invoked for such demands and the nature of information the government seeks – such as whether it involves the actual content of communications or so-called meta-data records of email addresses and the times when messages are exchanged.

In a statement Friday, a Google spokesman said:

“While the government’s decision to publish aggregate information about certain national security requests is a step in the right direction, we believe there is still too much secrecy around these requests and that more openness is needed. That’s why we, along with many others, have called on the U.S. government to allow us to publish specific numbers about both FISA and NSL requests.”

The lawsuits by the two companies are pending in the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has jurisdiction over national security matters.

(Photo credit: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (328 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.