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Yahoo! lawyers says the company refused to comply with what it viewed as 'unconstitutional and overbroad surveillance' and were threatened with large fines for their challenge to the U.S. government’s claimed authority. (File)

How US Govt Bullied Yahoo! over NSA Access to User Data

Case is significant because it sheds light on the controversial level of complicity between the nation's largest internet companies and the NSA regarding the agency's mass surveillance practices

Jon Queally

As the internet giant Yahoo! attempted to refuse compliance with requests by the NSA to access the online data for millions of the company's users, the U.S. Justice Department threatened to fine the company a staggering $250,000 a day, according to new reporting based on previously secret court documents released on Thursday.

In a case that dates back to 2007 and 2008, Yahoo! had argued to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that the NSA's demands for user data were both "unconstitutional and overbroad." The tech company was denied by the court and the records of the entire case were sealed from review. Not only was the public not aware of the legal challenges going on behind closed doors, but even Yahoo! lawyers were kept in the dark about key aspects of the case.

As the company's general counsel and leader attorney in the case Ron Bell, explained in a blog post on Thursday:

Despite the declassification and release, portions of the documents remain sealed and classified to this day, unknown even to our team. The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts. At one point, the U.S. Government threatened the imposition of $250,000 in fines per day if we refused to comply.

Our fight continues. We are still pushing for the FISC to release materials from the 2007-2008 case in the lower court. The FISC indicated previously that it was waiting on the FISC-R ruling in relation to the 2008 appeal before moving forward. Now that the FISC-R matter is resolved, we will work hard to make the materials from the FISC case public, as well.

The Yahoo! case is significant because it sheds light on the largely secret agreements, and the controversial level of complicity, between the nation's largest internet companies and the NSA regarding the agency's mass surveillance practices that were largely conducted without public awareness prior to leaked documents provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden. As the Guardian reports:

Almost all the major US tech firms including AOL, Apple, Google and Microsoft were listed by the NSA as participants in the program, which was run in conjunction with the NSA’s British equivalent, GCHQ.

Begun under the Bush administration the program collected information from the major tech companies under Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act. The NSA’s slides obtained by Snowden contained a briefing presentation which said Prism granted access to records such as emails, chat conversations, voice calls, documents and more.

Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, said he had not yet reviewed all the documents but that it appeared Yahoo “had challenged the warrantless wiretapping program more than any other of its competitors”.

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