US District Judge James L. Robart refused to dismiss a lawsuit from Microsoft alleging that the U.S. government's requests for user data and emails were violating its customers’ First and Fourth Amendment rights.
The tech giant filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice (DOJ) last April, which argued that the federal law is unconstitutional because it prohibits them from telling customers when the government demands their electronic data.
At the time, Microsoft’s chief legal officer wrote a blog claiming that in the 18 months leading up to lawsuit, the government made 2,576 requests for information. Those orders came with a gag order, and 68 percent of those orders did not have an end date. This effectively meant the company was prevented from ever alerting its customers.
The Justice Department filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the government has an interest in keeping criminal investigations confidential and customers often eventually learn about the data demands when charges are filed.
However, Microsoft successfully argued that the law harms the company by eroding customer confidence in its cloud services, Robart said in the ruling published Thursday. He agreed with Microsoft that the law violates the company's First Amendment right, but denied its claim that the law violates customers' rights, saying a third party like Microsoft can't assert constitutional rights for someone else.
"The public debate has intensified as people increasingly store their information in the cloud and on devices with significant storage capacity,” Robart said.“Government surveillance aided by service providers creates unique considerations because of the vast amount of data service providers have about their customers."
Microsoft's case has drawn support from companies like Apple, Twitter and Amazon as well as media outlets such as The Associated Press, the Seattle Times and Washington Post.
Microsoft President Brad Smith said the company is pleased with the order.
"This ruling enables our case to move forward toward a reasonable solution that works for law enforcement and ensures secrecy is used only when necessary," Smith said.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the ruling while the department reviews it. The case will now head to trial.
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