Two of the world's largest Internet companies are currently engaged in a legal battle to reveal the scope of their involvement in the controversial NSA spying programs exposed by a former intelligence contractor through a series of high-profile leaks. EFF has now joined a coalition to file a brief in support of Google and Microsoft as the companies seek permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court to reveal aggregate data about the federal government's access to user information.

"A national conversation about the lawfulness of government surveillance programs cannot take place in the dark," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman said. "At minimum, companies like Google and Microsoft should be able to publicly disclose aggregate information such as how many secret surveillance orders for their customers were received and the type of information sought. Other companies, similarly entrusted with sensitive customer information, should be permitted to do the same."

Here is the text of the joint press release from EFF and our friends at The First Amendment Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and TechFreedom:

WASHINGTON – Civil liberties groups filed a brief late yesterday in the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court arguing that Google and Microsoft must be ungagged so they can describe their role in the government's surveillance of the internet. The brief supports motions filed previously by Google and Microsoft requesting orders freeing them to publish information, in aggregate form, about the extent of the government's court-authorized access to their data. 

The First Amendment Coalition, a free speech group, organized the filing of the amicus brief, which was written by first amendment lawyers Floyd Abrams and Dean Ringel. The brief was also filed on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Democracy & Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TechFreedom.

While acknowledging the need for secrecy surrounding many aspects of the court’s work, the civil liberties groups contend that free speech safeguards nonetheless apply with special force to judicial actions that purport to bar private parties like Google and Microsoft from describing their own interaction with government agencies wielding court-sanctioned demands for data access.

The brief says: "In seeking to provide the public with information about the number of government requests received and the number of affected subscriber accounts, Google and Microsoft each seeks to engage in speech that addresses governmental affairs in the most profound way that any citizen can."

"Such speech, relating to the 'structures and forms of government' and 'the manner in which government is operated or should be operated,' is at the very core of the First Amendment," the brief argues.

The brief is available here.