Victory: U.S. won’t try to gag Facebook from telling users about warrants for their data

Yesterday, in a victory for human rights, the U.S. government agreed to a dismiss an appeal which had prevented Facebook from informing three users about a warrant for their records. Unfortunately by dismissing the case, there was no substantive ruling on whether the gag orders were proper in the first instance meaning this issue may come up again.

“Tech companies are finding their core values — and their user’s rights — increasingly under attack,” said Peter Micek, General Counsel of Access Now. “While many CEOs are speaking up, fewer step up and put their legal teams behind their strong words, for which Facebook deserves credit. Here, we formed a united front against unlawful surveillance and censorship, and forced the U.S. government to back down. As human rights and civil liberties groups, our message is clear: as more companies walk their talk on human rights, we’ll have their back, and win together.”

The case, in re: Facebook, Inc. v. United States of America, involved warrants to Facebook asking them to unmask three users and hand over “all contents of communications, identifying information, and other records related to three Facebook accounts for a specified three-month period of time.” The U.S. government is investigating protesters who demonstrated at the inauguration of U.S. President Trump in Washington, D.C. on January 2017. We believe that these warrants are part of its inquiry.

The warrants were accompanied by a gag, or “non-disclosure,” order barring Facebook from telling anyone — including the people under investigation — about the warrants before handing over to the government the documents and information requested. Access Now had joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other civil society organizations in filing the “friend of the court” brief in defense of the constitutional right to anonymity as well as in support of Facebook’s right to speak about the warrants and tell its users when they’re being investigated.

“The surveillance orders in this case appear to be designed to chill not only speech, but political speech, which is at the core of the right to freedom of expression,” said Amie Stepanovich, U.S. Policy Manager and Global Policy Counsel at Access Now. “Getting rid of these gag orders is a great first step, but if this case is about Trump protesters, as it seems to be, the Department of Justice must go further and drop outright this frivolous and unmerited investigation. If not, and if the U.S. government decides to start down the road of investigating those who protest against the current administration, they should prepare to have their hands full for as long as it remains in power.

You can read more information about the case here.