Tech Firms Battling Gag Orders Over Government Surveillance

Tech companies including Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft are fighting gag orders from US courts preventing them from talking about government surveillance of their users, arguing it has a chilling effect on free speech.

Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft all have policies to notify users of government requests for account information unless they are prohibited by law from doing so in exceptional circumstances such as life-threatening emergencies, child sexual exploitation and terrorism.

However, it seems that the US government is attaching gag orders -- many with no time limit -- to their data requests in about half of all cases. This means that people are having their digital lives ransacked without their knowledge and with no chance for public scrutiny or appeal.

Tech companies and civil liberties campaigners argue that the gag orders are unconstitutional, violating the fourth amendment, which gives people the right to know if the government searches or seizes their property, and the first amendment, which protects the companies' right to talk to their customers and discuss how the government conducts its investigations.

Facebook is challenging a court order that prevents the company from notifying three of its users about government search warrants in relation to "potential felony charges" seeking all communication, identifying information and other records from their social media profiles for a three-month period.

Most of the details of the investigation are sealed, although one filing suggests the warrants are linked to mass arrests of protesters during Donald Trump's inauguration in January.

"We believe there are important first amendment concerns with this case, including the government's refusal to let us notify three people of broad requests for their account information in connection with public events," said a company spokesman.

Facebook has, according to amicus briefs filed by the end of June, the support of Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter, Dropbox, Yelp and Avvo as well...

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