To oppose the unwarranted search and intrusion into the private lives of American citizens, Google has filed a petition challenging the practice of issuing National Security Letters (NSL) by the government to obtain private data about its users.
On March 29, Google filed a petition with the U.S. District Court of Northern California. The task of deciding the fate of users privacy has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Illston, who just recently ordered the government to stop issuing NSLs across the board and cease enforcing gag provisions where they have already been issued.
In keeping with its unofficial company motto of “don’t be evil,” the search giant decided to push back against the governments practice but the NLSs finally appear to be causing unrest among other communication companies. Just days before Google released its petition; a U.S. District Judge in California ruled that so-called NSLs that come with a gag order on the recipient are an unconstitutional infringement of free speech, in a case brought by an unnamed company and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Attorney Matt Zimmerman, who represented an the unidentified service provider, commented on the issue “The people who are in the best position to challenge the practice are people like Google… So far no one has really stood up for their users” among large Internet service providers.”
Of the hundreds of thousands of NSLs the FBI has issued over the years, only a handful of the requests have been confronted by the recipients. For small companies, with limited resources, petitioning the court and asking to alter or disregard the order has proven to be a difficult task. Google would be only the second company to come forward and challenge the letters.
In early march, Google’s interest in becoming more transparent became evident after it released a report for the first time showing a range of times that it received NSL’s from the FBI. A vague report that was published only after negotiating an agreement with the federal government, indicated that Google had received anywhere between 0 and 999 NLSs a year between 2009 and 2012.
The Department of Justice reports, the FBI has sent out nearly 300,000 NSLs since 2000. NSLs have been a powerful tool used by the government because they have not required court approval. Since the new policy for challenging NSL gag orders went into effect around 50,000 NSLs have been sent.
Sara Papantonio is a writer and researcher for Ring of Fire.