Yahoo wins order to unseal files in data-gathering case
Yahoo ( YHOO ) won a significant victory Monday in its effort to release secret court files from a 2008 case that played an important role in persuading Silicon Valley tech companies to cooperate with U.S. government surveillance programs.
In a rare move, the secretive U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court granted Yahoo's motion to declassify legal briefs and the court's ruling, which required the company to comply with government requests for records of certain customers' Internet activity.
While the court files are still subject to government review and censorship before they can be released, civil liberties advocates say the decision issued Monday could be a historic step toward understanding the legal arguments that authorities have used to carry out controversial surveillance programs involving U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies.
"The more information that we have about these programs, about their legal basis and the types of legal opinions they rely on, the better off the public is going to be -- and the companies will be, too," said Mark Rumold, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Yahoo fought an unsuccessful battle against the government's data requests in 2008, when the court rejected the company's argument that such requests violated its customers' constitutional protections against searches without a warrant. Legal experts say the court rulings against Yahoo gave the government a powerful tool to convince other tech companies that they're legally obliged to comply with similar requests.
But while authorities could cite the rulings, their contents and the arguments by Yahoo and the government were treated as classified secrets under federal law. Yahoo was not even allowed to say it was a party to the case until last month.
Yahoo is now the only major tech company that is seeking to unseal records in such a case, although Rumold's group and the American Civil Liberties Union are pursuing separate legal actions to declassify other opinions from the surveillance court. Only a handful of the court's opinions have ever been unsealed.
Since a former National Security Agency contractor went public last month with information about government surveillance programs, leading Internet companies have sought to distance themselves from those programs by arguing they only provide customers' information when they're legally required to do so. Internet companies depend on users' willingness to entrust them with all kinds of personal data, and the companies have sought to reassure customers that the information isn't being shared on a wholesale basis.
Google ( GOOG ) and Microsoft both filed separate lawsuits last month, arguing they should be allowed to disclose, in broad numbers, how often the government asks them to provide customer information on national security grounds.
In the Yahoo case, the company lost its fight in the surveillance court and also lost a subsequent 2008 appeal to a higher court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. Yahoo has also persuaded the review court to declassify its opinion in that case.