By Dow Jones Business News,
January 27, 2014, 05:56:00 PM EDT
By Devlin Barrett
WASHINGTON--The Obama administration has struck a tentative deal with major Internet companies allowing them to
tell the public more details about how the government collects data on their customers, officials said Monday.
The deal, which must still be approved by a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge, would allow Facebook
Inc., Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc., Google Inc., LinkedIn Corp. and Yahoo Inc. to give more aggregate data about the
demands they receive from the government.
Since June, when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents showing the government
had access to far more Internet and phone traffic than previously known, the companies have been under pressure from
customers to explain what customer information they share with the U.S. government.
The new deal was completed late last week. Five of the companies were fighting the government in court, while Apple
filed a "friend of the court" brief but didn't formally join the litigation.
The deal aims to strike a balance between the government's interest in not having the details of such requests
revealed in a way that would help the targets of investigations and companies' interest in responding to customers'
concerns about government monitoring of the Internet.
The terms would also apply to other companies that weren't specifically part of the litigation, officials said.
"We filed our lawsuits because we believe that the public has a right to know about the volume and types of
national security requests we receive, " a joint statement from Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo said. "We're
pleased the Department of Justice has agreed that we and other providers can disclose this information. While this is a
very positive step, we'll continue to encourage Congress to take additional steps to address all of the reforms we
believe are needed."
The American Civil Liberties Union also praised the move.
"This is a victory for transparency and a critical step toward reining in excessive government surveillance," said
ACLU attorney Alex Abdo. He said Congress should require further disclosures, including spying that happens without the
involvement of the tech firms.
Terms of the deal were negotiated principally between the No. 2 official at the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney
General James Cole, and the general counsels for the tech companies, according to a U.S. official briefed on the
discussions. In a statement, Attorney General Eric Holder said permitting the disclosures "addresses an important area
of concern to communications providers and the public." He said more work would be done on such privacy and security
issues in coming weeks.
Under the new disclosure terms, companies could give out general figures for how often they get certain types of
government demands for information, such as National Security Letters from the Federal Bureau of Investigation or court
orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Companies will have the option of reporting each individual category, as long as they report ranges of 1,000. So,
for example, if a company receives 2,400 National Security Letter requests in a six-month period, they will report that
they received between 2,000 and 3,000 such requests.
The companies would also be allowed to say, in similar general numbers, how many customer accounts are affected by
the requests, the officials said. Companies would be allowed to share the number of law enforcement and National
Security Letter requests they receive in real time, but there would be a six-month delay in reporting the number of
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court requests.
Under an alternative option, companies could report more specific number ranges, in increments of 250 requests, but
then they would have to lump a few categories together. So, for instance, if a company got 210 National Security Letters
and 40 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders, they would report having received between 250 and 500 such
requests in the six-month period.
-Danny Yadron contributed to this article.
Write to Devlin Barrett at email@example.com
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