It’s strange days indeed when Google, which has long attracted criticism for the opaque ways in which it handles user information, strikes a blow for greater transparency. This week the tech giant asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to rescind a gag order barring the company from revealing requests for information by government agencies. As of now, Google can’t legally confirm or deny that it has received any requests for information from that secret court. The company maintains it has a First Amendment right to publish not only the exact number of requests it received from the court, but also the number of accounts included in these requests. This is a gutsy and laudable move.
Currently, Google can publish at least the number of national security letters — requests for large bundles of information made by the FBI, often at the behest of other agencies — that it receives, in a range from zero to 999. Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Yahoo, and other tech companies involved in the government’s controversial Prism program came to an agreement with security officials allowing them to publish the total number of information requests they received from all government agencies combined. That’s marginally more information than Google can publish, but they can’t specify which agencies these requests came from. They can’t differentiate between information sought by local law enforcement and requests from US intelligence.
Now that Prism has become public knowledge, one could argue that new revelations by Google about the scope of government requests won’t actually tell the public much more than it already knows. Cynics might say the company mainly wants to defend itself from claims that intelligence agencies had full access to its servers. But Google’s willingness to fight for its right to share uncomfortable truths with customers shows a refreshing commitment to openness. Within the bounds of the law, users have a right to know where their information is going. It’s high time someone stood for that principle.