Microsoft gets support for its fight against government gag orders

From Amazon to Alaska Air, Microsoft has a pretty good base of support in its lawsuit against the U.S. government

Microsoft gets support for its fight against government gag orders
Credit: Thinkstock

Microsoft has secured some big allies in a fight against the federal government, including three of its chief rivals, plus a hometown airline. 

Microsoft is fighting the government over its right to tell customers when federal agents request their data and emails. The company filed a lawsuit in April against the federal government, charging such gag orders violate the Constitution and threaten the future of cloud computing. 

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Lining up behind Microsoft are Amazon, Google, Apple, LinkedIn (which Microsoft is in the process of acquiring) and the Alaska Air Group, which is based in Seattle. The companies all signed a pair of amicus briefs filed with the court regarding the suit. An amicus brief means "friend of the court," where a company can show its support for another in a legal proceeding.

"Microsoft’s lawsuit raises vitally important legal questions about the scope of the government’s power both to search the private information that internet users store in the cloud without notifying the target of the search," said the brief. 

All told, Microsoft has quite a collection of supporters. They include The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, Delta Air Lines, Alaska Air Group, Eli Lilly and Co, BP America, the Washington Post, Fox News, the National Newspaper Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. 

At issue is how the government views the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a 30-year-old law that forces Microsoft to stay quiet when the government demands electronic records of a company or individual under investigation. Microsoft contends it should be able to determine if and/or when it should notify customers of government information requests. 

The government maintains that when it requests information on a customer from a company such as Microsoft, that company must maintain secrecy in order to prevent subjects of an investigation from destroying evidence. 

According to Reuters, in the 18 months before Microsoft filed the lawsuit, the company said the government issued nearly 2,600 secrecy orders preventing Microsoft from informing customers that the government had requested their information and that more than two-thirds of those requests did not specify an end date. 

Microsoft says the law was created before cloud computing existed. Microsoft and other cloud providers, such as Amazon and Google, store vast amounts of customer data, making it easier to request that data. 

"Those benefits are threatened, however, by the government’s extensive use of gag orders," the brief said. 

By not notifying customers of these requests, Microsoft feels it’s assisting the government in violating its users’ constitutional rights, in particular the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure. 

No court date has been set.

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