Category Archives: Law: Free Speech

Microsoft Sues to Kill or Reduce ECPA Gag Orders

Microsoft filed suit today seeking a judicial declaration that 18 U.S.C. § 2705(b) violates its First Amendment Rights, and the Fourth Amendment rights of the subjects of the orders.

I think this lawsuit is a Big Deal, and Microsoft has the right of it on moral grounds. On legal grounds it has a good arguable case, although the law is not so clear that I can call it a slam dunk. This excellent article by Steve Lohr in the NYT gives the outline, and quotes a soi-disant expert.

Perhaps the most interesting, if disturbing, fact is this one:

From September 2014 to March 2016, Microsoft received 5,624 federal demands in the United States for customer information or data. Nearly half — 2,576 — were accompanied by secrecy orders.

And of those secrecy orders, more than two-thirds contained no fixed end date. I.e. unless Microsoft were to go to court later to challenge them in individual proceedings, they orders would on their own terms last forever.

The text of Microsoft’s complaint is worth reading as it is very well done. Here’s the first paragraph:

Microsoft brings this case because its customers have a right to know when the government obtains a warrant to read their emails, and because Microsoft has a right to tell them. Yet the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (“ECPA”) allows courts to order Microsoft to keep its customers in the dark when the government seeks their email content or other private information, based solely on a “reason to believe” that disclosure might hinder an investigation. Nothing in the statute requires that the “reason to believe” be grounded in the facts of the particular investigation, and the statute contains no limit on the length of time such secrecy orders may be kept in place. 18 U.S.C. § 2705(b). Consequently, as Microsoft’s customers increasingly store their most private and sensitive information in the cloud, the government increasingly seeks (and obtains) secrecy orders under Section 2705(b). This statute violates both the Fourth Amendment, which affords people and businesses the right to know if the government searches or seizes their property, and the First Amendment, which enshrines Microsoft’s rights to talk to its customers and to discuss how the government conducts its investigations—subject only to restraints narrowly tailored to serve compelling government interests. People do not give up their rights when they move their private information from physical storage to the cloud. Microsoft therefore asks the Court to declare that Section 2705(b) is unconstitutional on its face.

Update: For an argument that courts will deny Microsoft’s facial challenge on the grounds that the claims can only be asserted ‘as applied’ — very much an emphasis of recent Supreme Court decisions disfavoring as facial challenges to statutes, see Jennifer Daskal at Just Security, A New Lawsuit from Microsoft: No More Gag Orders!. It’s more pessimistic than I would be, but not implausible.

Update2: Microsoft’s statement.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Law: Constitutional Law, Law: Free Speech, Law: Internet Law, The Media | Leave a comment

Intimidating Critics Is an International Governmental Phenomenon

This British police intimidation of a blogger is much less heavy-handed than the hammer the Mayor of Peoria brought down on a parody Twitter account.

The Cambridge, UK story is, however, creepy insofar as it could be read to suggest that the police support the far-right UKIP party. Then again, the UKIP complainant was a local councillor, so maybe it really is the somewhat-less-unkind UK version of the Peoria story. After all, in Cambridge, no property was damaged or seized or destroyed. And no judges signed off on spurious warrants either.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Law: Free Speech, UK | Leave a comment

Freedom in Action

Two reminders of what freedom in action looks like:

Posted in Civil Liberties, Law: Free Speech | Leave a comment

Interviewed by Slate

I’m quoted a bit in Slate’s Florida almost certainly did not accidentally outlaw computers, which is the contrarian reaction to a bunch of stories yesterday. Katy Waldman sets the scene like this,

Back the truck up, compadres. Florida did not just inadvertently outlaw the 21st century. The Internet lit up Wednesday with reports of a new lawsuit claiming that, in its efforts to crack down on illegal gambling, the state had banned all computers, smartphones, or other devices capable of connecting to the Web. What happened: In April, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill making illegal slot machines, which the bill defined (in admittedly billowy terms) as “any machine or device or system or network of devices” that requires “an account number, code, or other object or information” to play “games of chance or skill.”

I’m quoted accurately, and I stand by what I said about why two different canons of construction suggest the courts would read the statute narrowly… but Ms. Waldman did leave out the bit where I also said that “the statute is in fact drafted broadly and sloppily, so the suit is not frivolous.”

Update: a fuller version of what I said is at Suit: Internet cafe law also bans computers in the Tampa Bay Tribune.

Posted in Florida, Law: Free Speech, The Media | Leave a comment

Happy Flag Day

Harold Wasserman has a nice Flag Day post, celebrating the 70th anniversary of West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette. He calls it “a high point in U.S. Supreme Court history.”

Posted in Law: Free Speech, Law: The Supremes | Leave a comment

EFF Wins Round 1 of a Big One

National Security Letters Are Unconstitutional, Federal Judge Rules:

A federal district court judge in San Francisco has ruled that National Security Letter (NSL) provisions in federal law violate the Constitution. The decision came in a lawsuit challenging a NSL on behalf of an unnamed telecommunications company represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

In the ruling publicly released today, Judge Susan Illston ordered that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stop issuing NSLs and cease enforcing the gag provision in this or any other case. The landmark ruling is stayed for 90 days to allow the government to appeal.

The controversial NSL provisions EFF challenged on behalf of the unnamed client allow the FBI to issue administrative letters — on its own authority and without court approval — to telecommunications companies demanding information about their customers. The controversial provisions also permit the FBI to permanently gag service providers from revealing anything about the NSLs, including the fact that a demand was made, which prevents providers from notifying either their customers or the public. The limited judicial review provisions essentially write the courts out of the process.

In today’s ruling, the court held that the gag order provisions of the statute violate the First Amendment and that the review procedures violate separation of powers. Because those provisions were not separable from the rest of the statute, the court declared the entire statute unconstitutional.

Full text of the decision in In Re National Security Letter. If this is upheld by the 9th Circuit, I would imagine it would be headed straight for the Supreme Court.

OBDisclosure: I am proud to be a member of EFF’s Advisory Board.

Posted in Law: Constitutional Law, Law: Free Speech, National Security | 1 Comment

SOPA, PIPA, and Internet Blackout Day

I have somewhat mixed feelings about Internet Blackout Day. Much as I sympathize with the motives, I have never much liked campaigns that try to take the oppressor’s symbols (pink triangles, yellow stars, what have you) and turn them around into pride symbols. The origins stick.

Similarly, I get the idea of fighting censorship with quiet. See what censorship will get you? But I still don’t like it. So I’ve run a compromise, with an overlay on this site that you can click through.

The cause is serious. Congress is contemplating two very dangerous Internet blacklist bills: SOPA (in the House) and PIPA (in the Senate). SOPA has been shelved, perhaps only temporarily, but PIPA is still alive and kicking.

EFF’s summary of the issues is right on target:

The “Stop Online Piracy Act”/”E-PARASITE Act” (SOPA) and “The PROTECT IP Act” (PIPA) are the latest in a series of bills which would create a procedure for creating (and censoring) a blacklist of websites. These bills are updated versions of the “Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act” (COICA), which was previously blocked in the Senate. Although the bills are ostensibly aimed at reaching foreign websites dedicated to providing illegal content, their provisions would allow for removal of enormous amounts of non-infringing content including political and other speech from the Web.

The various bills define different techniques for blocking “blacklisted” sites. Each would interfere with the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), which translates names like “www.eff.org” or “www.nytimes.com” into the IP addresses that computers use to communicate. SOPA would also allow rightsholders to force payment processors to cut off payments and advertising networks to cut ties with a site simply by sending a notice.

These bills are targeted at “rogue” websites that allow indiscriminate piracy, but use vague definitions that could include hosting websites such as Dropbox, MediaFire, and Rapidshare; sites that discuss piracy such as pirate-party.us, p2pnet, Torrent Freak, torproject.org, and ZeroPaid; as well as a broad range of sites for user-generated content, such as SoundCloud, Etsy, and Deviant Art. Had these bills been passed five or ten years ago, even YouTube might not exist today — in other words, the collateral damage from this legislation would be enormous.

There are already laws and procedures in place for taking down sites that violate the law. These acts would allow the Attorney General, and even individuals, to create a blacklist to censor sites when no court has found that they have infringed copyright or any other law.

See also EFF’s blacklist site. PIPA is scheduled for a vote in the Senate next Tuesday, so if you are a US citizen this is a good time to call your Senators and tell them to oppose the bills.

Posted in Civil Liberties, Communications, Law: Free Speech, Law: Internet Law | 2 Comments