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NSA threatened Yahoo with $250k a day fine for non-compliance with PRISM

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

September 12, 2014

Ah – PRISM – that charming little US government surveillance program that used America’s top internet technology companies to spy on just about everything everybody in the world did on the internet during its seven years of operation (some reports claim Prism shut down in 2011, but as the Snowden derived NSA slide below shows Apple joining the program in 2012, we find this claim dubious.

prism-slide-5-640x480

The Prism revelations were in fact the first salvo wistleblower Edward Snowden fired across the NSA’s bows in June last year, and elicited howls of protest and denials from the super-big companies named and shamed by him.

However, Yahoo has just announced the release of ‘1,500 pages of once-secret papers from Yahoo’s 2007-2008 challenge to the expansion of U.S. surveillance laws.’ These pages show how Yahoo put up an admirable fight against government demands that it hand over user’s data, arguing in court that they were ‘unconstitutional and overbroad.’

Unfortunately, Yahoo lost the case, and was threatened with fines of $250,000 per day for non-compliance with the court demands. As Yahoo’s General Council Tom Bell explains,

In 2007, the U.S. Government amended a key law to demand user information from online services. We refused to comply with what we viewed as unconstitutional and overbroad surveillance and challenged the U.S. Government’s authority…. Our challenge, and a later appeal in the case, did not succeed… The Court ordered us to give the U.S. Government the user data it sought in the matter…

The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts. At one point, the U.S. Government threatened the imposition of $250,000 in fines per day if we refused to comply.

Crucially, according the Washington Post, the ruling allowed the government to convince other big tech firms to join the PRISM program, allowing the NSA to order companies to hand over vast amounts of personal information about people from all over the world, collected directly through the companies’ fiber-optic cable systems.

Now, Yahoo is certainly to be commended for putting up the struggle it did against the government, and it is arguable that most other companies involved had little choice but to comply (although Microsoft appears to have bent over without complaint even before the court ruling, and therefore has no moral ground to stand on at all), but… and this is a big but… despite repeated and outraged vehement denials, these companies did clearly know and about Prism, and cooperated with it (however reluctantly), and are lying when they say didn’t.

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