San Francisco – An appeals court published redacted briefing by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today arguing that national security letters (NSLs) and their accompanying gag orders violate the free speech rights of companies who want to keep their users informed about government surveillance.
EFF represents two service providers in challenging the NSL statutes in front of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Most of the proceedings have been sealed since the case began five years ago, but some redacted documents have been released after government approval.
“Just this week we’ve seen Open Whisper Systems—the company behind the Signal messaging service—successfully fight a government gag order attached to a subpoena for customer information. Meanwhile, Yahoo is facing criticism for allowing the government wide-ranging access to its users’ communications,” said EFF Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker. “Our clients want to join this conversation, using their own experiences as a basis to talk about what kind of government surveillance is appropriate and what reform is needed—but NSL gags prevent them from doing so. We’re asking the court to strike down this unconstitutional statute so we can have the robust and inclusive debate that this issue deserves.”
The NSL statutes have been highly controversial since their use was expanded under the USA PATRIOT Act. With an NSL, the FBI—on its own, and without court approval—can issue a secret letter to a communications provider, demanding information about its customers. In this case and nearly all others, the NSL is issued in conjunction with a gag order, preventing the companies from notifying users of the demand or discussing the letter at all. Congress changed some parts of the statute in 2015, but retained the basic elements of the gags. In fact, EFF’s clients still cannot identify themselves publicly or share their experiences as part of the debate over government surveillance of technology services.
“Our clients want to be able to issue accurate transparency reports and talk to their customers about how they try to defend users from overreaching government investigations,” Crocker said. “But instead, the FBI instituted indefinite gag orders to shield its demands for information. This is an unconstitutional restriction of our clients’ First Amendment rights.”
For the full redacted brief:
For more on national security letters: