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Facebook and Yahoo join call for more government transparency in new lawsuits

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Mark Zuckerberg Facebook Stock
Mark Zuckerberg Facebook Stock

Facebook and Yahoo have become the latest tech companies to ask the FISA court for permission to publish more detailed data on the government's requests for user information. In separate posts on their respective sites, the two companies announced that they had filed petitions similar to those already put forward by Google and Microsoft. "In recent weeks, it has become clear that the dialogue with the US government that produced some additional transparency at the outset is at this point unlikely to result in more progress," wrote Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch. Google has also submitted an amended version of its lawsuit, and it notes that it's one of the companies meeting with Obama's surveillance review panel.

Shortly after leaked documents revealed that the US was operating a broad online surveillance program, tech companies began asking for permission to release hard numbers about what was being collected. Facebook and Microsoft soon reached a deal that would allow them to release estimates of total government requests, but not details about whether those requests were made by the NSA or other agencies. Google, however, called the government's offer "a step back for users," opting instead to petition the court for permission to break out FISA requests. Microsoft followed suit, and the two began a series of ultimately fruitless discussions with the Department of Justice. In late August, both decided to continue their lawsuits.

"Dialogue with the US government ... is at this point unlikely to result in more progress."

Both Yahoo and Facebook want the same thing: the option to tell users how many national security-related requests they receive. While the companies began publishing transparency reports in the past few weeks, neither has been able to break out requests under FISA or other high-security statutes; instead, a single number includes everything from law enforcement requests to FBI national security letters. Google has asked to be able to specifically reveal how many FISA requests it's received, and Microsoft hopes it could not only do that but show how many of those requests asked for user content and how many were for metadata only.

By releasing the numbers, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook all hope to allay users' fears that they're being spied on. The NSA's requests and those made with FBI national security letters come with a gag order that prevents recipients from admitting that they've received the request, but companies have argued that these orders infringe on their First Amendment rights and that the gag order should only apply to individual requests, not the sum of them. Though the suits haven't made progress yet, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has promised to start publishing an official tally of how many people are surveilled under various national security programs. And in a bittersweet move for Yahoo, he's doing so on the intelligence community's official Tumblr account.