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WASHINGTON – Civil liberties groups filed a brief late yesterday in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court arguing that Google and Microsoft must be ungagged so they can describe their role in the government's surveillance of the internet. The brief supports motions filed previously by Google and Microsoft requesting orders freeing them to publish information, in aggregate form, about the extent of the government's court-authorized access to their data.
The First Amendment Coalition, a free speech group, organized the filing of the amicus brief, which was written by first amendment lawyers Floyd Abrams and Dean Ringel. The brief was also filed on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TechFreedom.
While acknowledging the need for secrecy surrounding many aspects of the court’s work, the civil liberties groups contend that free speech safeguards nonetheless apply with special force to judicial actions that purport to bar private parties like Google and Microsoft from describing their own interaction with government agencies wielding court-sanctioned demands for data access.
The brief says: "In seeking to provide the public with information about the number of government requests received and the number of affected subscriber accounts, Google and Microsoft each seeks to engage in speech that addresses governmental affairs in the most profound way that any citizen can."
"Such speech, relating to the 'structures and forms of government' and 'the manner in which government is operated or should be operated,' is at the very core of the First Amendment," the brief argues.
"For too long, secrecy surrounding the government’s surveillance of Americans has hobbled public debate,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "Google, Microsoft, and other companies subject to secret surveillance orders should be allowed to publicly discuss the number of orders they receive, their breadth, and the nature of the information sought. Without this basic information about the government’s surveillance activities, we cannot have the informed public discussion that the president has invited."
The brief is available here.