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Yahoo Threatened With Huge Fines If It Didn't Release User Data


Documents show that a major Internet company at least tried to keeping from passing on information to the National Security Agency. A court has unsealed 1,500 pages. They track the case of Yahoo, and they show the NSA demanded information, that the Yahoo fought back and that the company faced fines of $250,000 per day for not complying. Yahoo pushed to release these documents after Edward Snowden revealed that tech companies cooperated with the NSA. NPR's Laura Sydell has been covering this story from San Francisco. Hi, Laura.


INSKEEP: So what was the NSA getting?

SYDELL: So the government wanted to access the accounts of people living in the United States who were communicating with people outside of the U.S. who might be targets of a terrorism investigation. In a normal criminal investigation, the government has to go with very specific information to a court about who they want to wiretap and why.


SYDELL: But since 9/11, Congress has passed laws that make it a lot easier for the government to demand information in support of national security investigations. What these documents reveal is that Yahoo fought really hard against providing customer account information to the government. Yahoo argued that the government demands violated the Fourth Amendment, prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.

INSKEEP: OK, so a few points here - we're not talking about this metadata program where they were gathering information on millions of people. We're talking about specific targets of an investigation. We're finding that Yahoo fought back against this, although I guess they ultimately gave up the information. Why was it so important to Yahoo for the public to know that they fought back?

SYDELL: Well, when Edward Snowden came out with these revelations about the tech companies handing over data to the government, this was incredibly embarrassing to these tech companies. And it was really bad for business, particularly in Europe, where they saw, what? You know, they're handing over our data to the American government? And so they wanted to prove that they had fought back. This is a 6-year-old case. These documents, which have been kept secret, finally revealed that they did fight back.

INSKEEP: Do the documents show something else besides Yahoo's efforts to not give up information?

SYDELL: Well, all this took place in what's called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance, or FISA, Court, which reviews government requests to eavesdrop on intelligence targets. And it's secret. That's why all these records have been sealed until yesterday.


SYDELL: And I do want to say, we still don't know all the details because there's a lot of portions of these documents that are still redacted. The government is keeping a lot of what they know classified because of what they are saying are sensitive, ongoing investigations. But what we do see here is that Yahoo was vigorous in objecting and appealing the court's decisions.

INSKEEP: And I guess we will also learn the government's argument here.

SYDELL: Yes. The government pointed to the need for intelligence to fight terrorism and that post-9/11, Congress gave it a lot of latitude when it passed the first Protect America Act of 2007, which expired and was renewed in 2008 as the FISA Amendments Act. Yahoo argued that specific portions of the act were unconstitutional and that Congress had actually exceeded its authority. But ultimately, the judge agreed with the government. And the judge said requiring the executive branch to meet these procedural requirements every time it identifies a new person or a group of people who it wants to investigate could really put a big burden on intelligence gathering. The judge did acknowledge that there were competing interests at stake between the Constitution and the government's ability to protect the nation.

INSKEEP: Competing interests - but ultimately, the government won there. And did the government win when it came to other big tech companies?

SYDELL: Well, it had been widely reported that many of the companies - Google, Facebook, Apple - did not want to comply. But after this decision, they really didn't have a choice anymore, so they complied.

INSKEEP: Laura, thanks very much.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Laura Sydell. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.
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