Google asks to make surveillance orders public, citing First Amendment

The company has asked the US surveillance court to rule that it has free speech rights to publish data about requests

Google has asked the court overseeing terrorism-related surveillance programs at the U.S. National Security Agency to allow the company to publish information on the number of surveillance requests it receives.

The Internet company, in a filing with the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on Tuesday, asked the court to allow it to publish the number of surveillance requests it gets from the NSA and other federal agencies and the number of users or accounts affected by those requests. The U.S. Department of Justice contends that publishing the information would be illegal.

Google's lawyers argued the company has the right, under free speech guarantees in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to publish aggregate data about surveillance requests.

Google's request comes in the wake of allegations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that Google and eight other Internet companies have given the NSA direct access to their servers, allowing the spy agency to read email and other Internet communications.

Google and other Internet companies have denied the allegations, made public this month, with Google saying it provides information to the NSA and other agencies when required by law. NSA officials have also told lawmakers that they do not have direct access to Internet companies' servers.

"Google's reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media, and Google's users are concerned by the allegations," Albert Gidari, a lawyer representing Google, wrote in the petition to the surveillance court. "These are matters of significant weight and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner."

Google has released information about national security letters, which are a way for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to get business records from companies, but Google wants more transparency about other surveillance requests, a spokeswoman said.

"We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data," the Google spokeswoman said. While some companies have published national security surveillance request numbers lumped together with law enforcement requests related to criminal activity, that would be a "backward step" for Google's users, she added.

A DOJ spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for a comment on Google's petition.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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