Google has filed a legal motion asserting its "First Amendment right to publish aggregate information about FISA orders," asking the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to remove the gag order that keeps the company from issuing that information. Google and other big U.S. tech companies have been under fire after it was reported that they allowed the National Security Agency to mine customer data, in a government program called PRISM.
"FISA court data requests typically are known only to small numbers of a company's employees," says The Washington Post, which first reported the story. "Discussing the requests openly, either within or beyond the walls of an involved company, can violate federal law."
The court filing comes one week after Google asked the U.S. government's permission to provide the public with information about the national security requests it receives. As in that case, Google is seeking to publish general statistics about the court's orders, which would include the number of users or accounts in question.
In today's carefully worded request for a declaratory judgment, Google was mindful not to say it has received such requests, saying that it wanted to reveal information about "FISA requests that may be or have been served upon it, if any."
Google hopes to add that information to its Transparency Report, where it lists government requests about users' information.
The FISA court, comprising 11 federal judges, is believed to have refused very few of the government's requests to conduct electronic surveillance.
"It may be that they grant more than 99 percent of the requests," journalist and author Tim Weiner told All Things Considered co-host Melissa Block last week, "but they look at them."
Large Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and others have issued public statements saying that claims that they provide the NSA with "direct access" to users' data are untrue.
Those claims stem from classified documents leaked by former government contract employee Edward Snowden, who reiterated his views yesterday in an online chat hosted by The Guardian newspaper, which first published the NSA story.
In the request Google made last week, its chief counsel, David Drummond, explained to Attorney General Eric Holder that the search and advertising giant "has worked tremendously hard over the past fifteen years to earn our users' trust."
Update at 7:10 p.m. ET. ACLU: 'Step In The Right Direction'
After we published, the ACLU got in touch with this reaction to today's news, calling it "a step in the right direction":
"We welcome Google's effort to force greater transparency, but the public is entitled to know even more than the limited information Google wants to share," says ACLU attorney Alex Abdo. "At a minimum, the public should know the statistics relating to the government's use of PRISM and the FISA Amendments Act, not aggregated with other data, and it should know which specific provisions of FISA the government has relied on to require Google to disclose customers' Internet data and email."