There have beem a surprising number of times in recent days when corporations have found themselves at the wrong end of various US laws, that attempt to force them to divulge information associated to their users. In most of these cases, the judiciary has had to step in. Something similar happened in a Microsoft vs US Government case recently.
The case involves several Microsoft data centres that are situated in Ireland and contain some data(specially emails) wanted by authorities in the US. After the company initially refused to provide the data citing its users privacy, the government had a NY court issue a warrant, which Microsoft has been battling against ever since 2013.
Well, in what is definitely a great relief for Microsoft, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled today that Microsoft is not required to submit to US laws regarding the data stored on the said centres, because they are actually in Ireland amd not on US soil.
The Irish government also spoke out against the use of a court ruling, stating that the US government should have used its diplomatic channels with Ireland to attempt to get the data it needed, and should not have insulted the country’s sovereignty with a U.S-based search warrant — my, my but the Irish are touchy.
Meanwhile, the company also received immense support from industry rivals, collaborators, media houses and even foreign governments. Civil liberties organizations, Amazon, Apple, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, American Civil Liberties Union, CNN and the Washington Post, were chief among those who signed amicus briefs proclaiming their backing for the company.
Data has been a chief tussle point for governments and corporations, of late. While the former would undoubtedly like unrestrained access to all the user data piled up in the companies data banks, and are invoking various security acts and clauses to do so, the latter, however, are calling it a breach of consumer privacy and fighting every inch of the way.
We recently had the Apple-FBI tussle that ended with the court deciding in Apple’s favor — Although the FBI did manage to get the phone lock opened elsewhere. Meanwhile, the lawmakers and the judiciary appear to be divided on the point. While many lawmakers are strong proponents of allowing the security agencies preview over data for national security, many are not.
Same is the case with the Judiciary. While the supreme court recently approved some changes to Rule 41 in April, that will allow judges to issue search warrants for electronic media even if it is not located in the judge’s county, certain members of the congress are attempting to block it. And while the NY court dispatched a warrant, for Microsoft to provide the data, a second circuit court summarily trashed the decision.
Miceosoft is certainly glad of the turn of things. As per Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer Brad Smith,
We obviously welcome today’s decision by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. It makes clear that the U.S. Congress did not give the U.S. Government the authority to use search warrants unilaterally to reach beyond U.S. borders. As a global company we’ve long recognized that if people around the world are to trust the technology they use, they need to have confidence that their personal information will be protected by the laws of their own country.
However, these increasing defeats at the hand of corporations may just infuriate the government enough to pass a bill that would force them to provide data kept anywhere, or to force them to keep data — at least that associated with US public — in the country itself, something similar to what recently transpired in Iran.
Neither of the prospects would prove too tempting for companies who store data abroad for reasons of their own. Ireland for example, is a choice destination due to tax incentives and the relatively cooler climate. And ofcourse, the government does not poke its nose in their business there.
Meanwhile, Microsoft may have won the battle but the war continues and has proponents of both sides clamouring for this and that. While Microsoft supporters point towards the potential for misuse of a law that could force corporations to cede informarion to the US, government supporters cite putting national security above all else. Both the sides have their points.
However, a workable decision will be reached not in courts, but when both these sides decide to sit down and reach an agreement acceptable to everyone — One that puts national security above everything else but also constrains misuse and mischief. Until then though, the ball will continue to roll from this court to that.