In 2010, following the release of hundreds of thousands of US secret documents obtained from Chelsea Manning by media organization WikiLeaks (in cooperation with other international news organisations, including the Guardian), the FBI approached Google and demanded that it hand over the emails of three WikiLeaks staff members.
‘Shockingly broad… This is basically “Hand over anything you’ve got on this person.” That’s troubling as it’s hard to distinguish what WikiLeaks did in its disclosures from what major newspapers do every single day in speaking to government officials and publishing still-secret information.’
Google was given a deadline of April 2012 to comply, and while details of exactly what ‘responsive documents pursuant to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act’ it handed over remain unclear, it appears the technology company cooperated with the government in full,
‘We follow the law like any other company. When we receive a subpoena or court order, we check to see if it meets both the letter and the spirit of the law before complying. And if it doesn’t we can object or ask that the request is narrowed. We have a track record of advocating on behalf of our users.’
Last month, over two years after this deadline was set, Google informed the affected WikiLeaks staff members about the FBI order. It is unclear how much time has passed since the gag order which accompanied the demands (presumably) expired.
Expressing shock at the revelations, WikiLeaks described itself as being ‘surprised and disturbed’, while UK citizen and one of the victims of the spying orders, Sarah Harrison, expressed distress,
‘Knowing that the FBI read the words I wrote to console my mother over a death in the family makes me feel sick.’
She also expressed anger at Google for cooperating with,
‘[The US government’s] invasion of privacy into a British journalist’s personal email address. Neither Google nor the US government are living up to their own laws or rhetoric in privacy or press protections.’
Although Google has defended its actions on the grounds that it was simply complying with the law, its actions stand in sharp contrast to those of Twitter. As WikiLeaks’ press notice observes,
‘Although Google claims that it was at some stage under a gag order from the US government, there is no indication that Google fought the gag and it is unlikely that the gag just happened to expire the day before Christmas. Similar gags for warrants against WikiLeaks journalists have been successfully fought by Twitter in much shorter time-frames.’
This statement refers to US Justice Department demands in 2009 that Twitter hand over the private messages of Birgitta Jonsdottir, former Icelandic MP, and a WikiLeaks volunteer who helped release the infamous secret footage of a US Apache helicopter killing civilians in Baghdad.
Twitter informed Jonsdottir of the demands, although she ultimately lost a long term legal challenge to them in July 2012, when a Virginia appeals court decided (as noted by ACLU) ‘that the government can keep hidden its efforts to obtain internet users’ private information without a warrant.’
All these requests stem from a US government criminal investigation into the Chelsea Manning leaks, an investigation that the Guardian notes was still ongoing as of May last year.
Chelsea Manning herself has been sentenced to 35 years military imprisonment for her involvement, and WikiLeaks’ founder and editor-in-chief, Julian Assange remains on the run from US ‘justice’, trapped in Republic of Ecuador’s London embassy. Assange told the Guardian that,
‘[The seizure] was a serious, and seriously wrong attempt to build an alleged ‘conspiracy’ case against me and my staff… Google rolling over yet again to help the US government violate the constitution – by taking over journalists’ private emails in response to give-us-everything warrants.’