WashU Expert: Microsoft suit a win for civil liberties

Microsoft Corp. filed a lawsuit today (April 14) against the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking to challenge the government’s authority to bar tech companies from informing companies and the public when their data has been seen by federal agents.

Microsoft’s challenge to the gag order provisions of the federal Stored Communications Act should be applauded by everyone who cares about civil liberties, whether in the physical or digital worlds, said Neil Richards, a privacy law expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Neil Richards

The Stored Communications Act, the 30-year-old law at issue in the suit, is hopelessly outdated and is a threat to both First and Fourth Amendment values, Richards said.

“The real problem here is that Congress has failed to update a law from the days of DOS, telex and answering machines with little cassettes in them to take account of the enormous technological transformations we’ve witnessed since then,” he said. “Everyone on all sides of this issue agrees that the law needs to be updated, and it’s Congress’ failure to act that is the real source of dispute.”

Under the government’s reading of this law, Richards said, it has the ability to engage in largely unchecked secret surveillance.

“The law has failed to bring our hard-won civil liberties protections from the physical world into the age of the cloud, and I’m hopeful that this litigation will result in a ruling that does exactly that, as a matter of Constitutional command,” Richards said.

“Such a result would not only force Congress to act, but to do so in a way that respects our civil liberties against unchecked, secret government,” he added.

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