Media Moves

Coverage: Yahoo faces fine

September 12, 2014

Posted by Liz Hester

Yahoo is facing a hefty daily fine if it refuses to turn over user information to the U.S. government. The company is pushing back against the National Security Agency, and it might pay the price.

The Financial Times had the details in this story by Hannah Kuchler:

The US government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 per day if the internet company refused to comply with its requests for information on its users, according to court records revealed on Thursday.

More than 1,500 pages of documents were unsealed from Yahoo’s challenge to the expansion of US surveillance laws in 2007 and 2008, showing how the technology company pushed back against the National Security Agency surveillance of the internet exposed by the Edward Snowden leaks last year.

The documents reveal a secret battle between the technology industry and the US government that stretches back years before the Snowden leaks were published in 2013. This previously classified information shows at least some in the tech industry were under pressure from government agencies to reveal user data seven years ago, with neither side making the battle public.

Ron Bell, Yahoo’s general counsel, said Yahoo had refused to comply with an amendment to a law in 2007 that demanded user information from online services – but that their legal challenge and appeal had failed.

Vindu Goel and Charlie Savage wrote for The New York Times that the data released shows that Yahoo didn’t give the government direct access to data:

The records also provide perhaps the clearest corroboration yet of the Internet companies’ contention that they did not provide the government with direct access to vast amounts of customer data on their computers.

When the Snowden revelations surfaced last summer, there were reports that the government had direct access to look into the databases of Internet companies for any information they wanted, which the Internet companies have consistently denied. Instead, they said, the government had to send them a lawful request for information on a specific individual and only then would they hand it over.

In a document reporting on its compliance with the 2008 order to turn over customer data, Yahoo said it had begun surveillance on the requested accounts, beginning with the government’s highest-priority targets. That indicates that the government was sending Yahoo the names of the people it was investigating and waiting for the company to send the information, as opposed to directly accessing Yahoo’s servers.

Over all, the cache of documents shows how Yahoo fought the government and eventually lost its appeal. That helped to set the stage for a vast expansion of the federal government’s surveillance of Internet users through the secret Prism program. Ultimately, Yahoo and seven other companies had to provide data to the government under the program.

Yahoo and other companies were under fire after the government programs were revealed, a blow that caused damage to many reputations, Craig Timberg wrote for The Washington Post:

In the aftermath of the revelations, the companies have struggled to defend themselves against accusations that they were willing participants in government surveillance programs — an allegation that has been particularly damaging to the reputations of these companies overseas, including in lucrative markets in Europe.

Yahoo, which endured heavy criticism after The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper used Snowden’s documents to reveal the existence of PRISM last year, was legally bound from revealing its efforts in attempting to resist government pressure. The New York Times first reported Yahoo’s role in the case in June 2013, a week after the initial PRISM revelations.

Both the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the Foreign Intelligence Court of Review, an appellate court, ordered declassification of the case last year, amid a broad effort to make public the legal reasoning behind NSA programs that had stirred national and international anger. Judge William C. Bryson, presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, ordered the documents from the legal battle unsealed Thursday. Documents from the case in the lower court have not been released.

But The Wall Street Journal story by Danny Yadron had the best explanation of the background leading up to Yahoo’s cooperation with the government’s requests:

Beginning in November 2007, the government began requesting “warrantless surveillance” of certain Yahoo customers, according to court records. Yahoo objected and asked the surveillance court to block the government request. A judge refused, and threatened Yahoo with a fine. The Justice Department had asked for at least $250,000 a day, though the judge was less specific. Yahoo complied with the order in May 2008.

“We refused to comply with what we viewed as unconstitutional and overbroad surveillance and challenged the U.S. Government’s authority,” Ron Bell, Yahoo’s general counsel, said in a written statement. “Our challenge, and a later appeal in the case, did not succeed.”

The dispute revolved around the Protect America Act, a 2007 law that allowed the government to eavesdrop, without a warrant, on people believed to be connected to terrorist groups. The law expired in 2008, but was replaced by other laws that grant the government essentially the same powers.

In a joint blog post, the Justice Department and the Office of the Director of National intelligence said the court found that the government “has sufficient procedures in place to ensure that the Fourth Amendment rights of targeted U.S. persons are adequately protected” and that the requests were “reasonable.”

The disclosure comes as some intelligence officials are pushing to declassify more of the legal reasoning for controversial surveillance programs. That doesn’t mean the government has backed down in the use of such programs.

And the declassification of government reasoning behind its programs is actually the most interesting part of the case. For years, civil rights activists and attorneys have been trying to understand how the government selected those for surveillance and how it accessed information. The programs might be helping the public good by monitoring and preventing acts of terror, but citizens have a right to know how they’re being watched.

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