Microsoft drops lawsuit as USA govt agrees to reduce gag orders

Microsoft dropping gag-order lawsuit after US changes secrecy policy on email searches

The U.S. Department of Justice is moving to scale back the use of orders forcing technology companies to turn over customer data without alerting users to the clandestine interception of their information. In response to Microsoft's suit brought in April 2016 over the right to inform its customers, the US Department of Justice has now announced a change in its practices.

When Microsoft filed its lawsuit previous year, it explained that over an 18-month-period, 2,576 of the legal demands it got from the USA government "included an obligation of secrecy", while 68% appeared to contain "indefinite demands for secrecy". Microsoft wants the USA government to update the law and is pushing for it to advance the ECPA Modernization Act 2017, which includes a provision that addresses secrecy orders.

During the lawsuit, Microsoft presented a survey showing that the company had received 2,576 government gag orders within a period of just 18 months - 68 percent of these were indefinite demands for secrecy.

Now Microsoft is winding down its case because the government is ending its routine use of these gag orders. "It could also include cases where disclosure would thwart the government's investigation, or lead to the destruction of evidence", Smith wrote. The move by the DOJ is described by Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith as an "important step for both privacy and free expression", and a step to "protect the constitutional rights of all Americans". Its decision comes after the DOJ issued a new binding policy that requires prosecutors to give more detailed reasons when applying for a gag order and makes it much harder to seek one that lasts indefinitely.

Following whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about mass surveillance in 2013, Microsoft was among several big United States technology firms calling for surveillance reforms because of concerns that public loss of trust would hurt their businesses.

Smith said that while secrecy orders may be necessary in some cases, Microsoft's lawsuit was "based on a growing and disturbing trend". "We renew our call on Congress to amend it".

"We have been advocating for our customers before the DOJ for a long time, and we'll continue to do that". Microsoft supports the ECPA Modernization Act, a bipartisan bill introduced in July that would, among other things, address secrecy orders. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont. "It is time to update this outdated 1986 law that regulates government access to contemporary electronic communications", he wrote. For internet users whose data is sought, the government shouldn't delay notifying them for more than a year, except "barring exceptional circumstances", according to the memo.

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