MOUNTAIN VIEW -- Citing a constitutional right to free speech, Google (GOOG) asked the secretive U.S. foreign intelligence court Tuesday for permission to tell the public how many national security data requests the company receives from federal authorities, separate from routine law enforcement requests.
"Google's reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media" about government data-gathering, "and Google's users are concerned by the allegations," the company said in a court filing. "Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities."
Civil liberties groups applauded the legal motion from the Internet giant, which has balked at the government's restrictions on disclosing national security requests.
"Other companies should follow suit," the Electronic Frontier Foundation said in a Twitter post Tuesday afternoon. But other companies' reaction was muted. A source at one Internet company suggested that a lawsuit might be cumbersome and slow down the disclosure process.
Google and other Internet companies have said they want to provide more information in part to dispel the impression that government agencies have broad access to Internet users' online activities. That notion was raised by initial news reports in The Washington Post and the British newspaper the Guardian about a government surveillance program known as Prism, which suggested that the National Security Agency is able to tap directly into the servers of Google and other leading Internet companies.
Internet companies have denied that the government has direct access to their servers, but Google and the other companies have acknowledged that they provide information when they are legally required to comply with government requests.
"We have long pushed for transparency so users can better understand the extent to which governments request their data," Google said Tuesday, noting that it was the first company to win permission to report how many requests it receives under one national security law, the Patriot Act.
But companies have not been allowed to report on a second type of request, made under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The Prism program operates under FISA authority. Federal authorities only agreed last week that companies could report on FISA requests if they were included in a broad total of all requests from local police and other government agencies.
In recent days, Yahoo (YHOO), Apple (AAPL), Facebook and Microsoft have issued reports that complied with that requirement, even though critics have said the gross numbers do not provide a clear picture of what kinds of requests the government is making.
"Greater transparency is needed," Google said Tuesday, "so today we have petitioned the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow us to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures," separately from other types of requests such as those coming from local police.
The Washington, D.C.-based court has jurisdiction over government intelligence programs and operates mostly in secret.
But in its filing, Google argued: "These matters are of significant weight and importance, and transparency is critical to advancing public debate in a thoughtful and democratic manner."
Contact Brandon Bailey at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey.