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June 27, 2013

Top Secret Court to Give Microsoft, Google Some of the Transparency They Have Been Fighting For

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) will permit Google and Microsoft to divulge details of their respective legal battles to have the gag order lifted on data requests made by federal agencies such as the National Security Agency.

CNET is reporting presiding FISC judge Reggie Walton told the Obama administration he plans to authorize the disclosure of “procedural information” about the cases by both firms if he receives presidential approval.

The acting assistant attorney general for national security, John Carlin, told CNet in a “submitted response” that neither Microsoft’s nor Google’s legal filings contain “information that is now classified, nor information that should be held under seal.”

This is a huge step for FISC, known as the U.S.’s top-secret court due to its handling of national security matters.

Google and Microsoft filed objections with the court after the government gave them the go-ahead earlier this month to divulge the number of national security-related requests they receive, but only if the information was grouped together with other data requests. Both firms said the court’s decision left a lot to be desired because grouping the information in with other requests effectively keeps the public in the dark.

The two companies have been seeking an increase in transparency since The Washington Post and The Guardian —which received top-secret information courtesy of National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden — published stories indicating Microsoft and Google, along with other top technology firms, willingly joined PRISM, an extensive government surveillance plan.

Although it has since come to light that the publications misinterpreted the documentation from Snowden, Microsoft and Google have both voiced concerns about how public perception of their companies has been affected.

In a court document, filed June 19, Google asked (FISC) for permission to go public with the total numbers of requests the company receives that are okayed by the court as well as the number of user accounts affected by those requests.

“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,” the filing reads. “Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities.”

Microsoft, described its nine-page court filing, published on Scribd Wednesday, as a bid to “correct the misimpression … that it provides the United States government with direct access to its servers and network infrastructure.”