Court agrees to take on US-Microsoft dispute over emails

By Mark Sherman

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to take on a major dispute over the government’s authority to force American technology companies to hand over emails and other digital information sought in criminal probes but stored outside the U.S.

The justices intervened in a case of a federal drug trafficking investigation that sought emails that Microsoft keeps on a server in Ireland.

The federal appeals court in New York said that the emails are beyond the reach of a search warrant issued by an American judge.

Impeding investigations

The Trump administration and 33 states told the court that the decision is impeding investigations into terrorism, drug trafficking, fraud and child pornography because other courts are relying on the ruling in preventing U.S. and state authorities from obtaining information kept abroad.

The case is among several legal clashes that Redmond-based Microsoft and other technology companies have had with the government over questions of digital privacy and authorities’ need for information to combat crime and extremism.

Privacy law experts said the companies have been more willing to push back against the government since the leak of classified information detailing America’s surveillance programs.

The case also highlights the difficulty that judges face in trying to square decades-old laws with new technological developments.

In urging the high court to stay out of the case, Microsoft said Congress needs to bring the law into the age of cloud computing.

In 2013, federal investigators obtained a warrant under a 1986 law for emails from an account they believe was being used in illegal drug transactions as well as identifying information about the user of the email account.

Microsoft turned over the information, but went to court to defend its decision not to hand over the emails from Ireland.

The federal appeals court in New York agreed with the company.

The administration in its Supreme Court appeal said the decision is damaging “hundreds if not thousands of investigations of crimes — ranging from terrorism, to child pornography, to fraud.”

Vermont, representing the states at the high court, said Google and Yahoo are among other email providers that “are relying on the decision to resist warrants.”

Wherever the emails reside, Microsoft can retrieve them “domestically with the click of a computer mouse,” Justice Department lawyer Jeffrey Wall told the court.

But Microsoft said the appeals court was correct to limit the use of a warrant for information held abroad.

The company said the better course is for Congress to make needed changes to bring the 1986 Stored Communications Act up to date.

Bipartisan bills

Bipartisan bills have been introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

Microsoft said the high court’s intervention would “short-circuit” the congressional effort.

“The current laws were written for the era of the floppy disk, not the world of the cloud. We believe that rather than arguing over an old law in court, it is time for Congress to act by passing new legislation,” Microsoft President and chief legal officer Brad Smith wrote on the company’s blog after the court acted.

Privacy scholars also have worried that the court might have trouble resolving difficult issues in a nuanced way.

Data companies have built servers around the world to keep up with customers’ demands for speed and access.

Among the issues the court might confront is whether the same rules apply to the emails of an American citizen and a foreigner.

Another is whether it matters where the person is living.

The Stored Communications Act became law long before the advent of cloud computing.

Judge Gerard Lynch, on the New York panel that sided with Microsoft, called for “congressional action to revise a badly outdated statute.”

The case, U.S. v. Microsoft, 17-2, will be argued early next year.

More in Business

ON THE WATERFRONT: Winter is coming so it’s time to prepare for safe storage

OLYMPIC MARINE IN Port Angeles offers mechanical services to the boating industry.… Continue reading

Coast Works offers intensive business training to 16 finalists

all emerging entrepreneurs from coastal communities in Pacific, Wahkiakum,… Continue reading

EYE ON BUSINESS: This week’s meetings

Luncheon meetings are usually Wednesdays at… Continue reading

Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau seeks candidates for three board positions

The Olympic Peninsula Visitor Bureau is seeking candidates to… Continue reading

EYE ON BUSINESS: This week’s meetings

Luncheon meetings are usually Wednesdays at… Continue reading

ON THE WATERFRONT: Boat Haven opens laundry facility

WORK IS PROGRESSING well at the site of the Marine Trades Industrial… Continue reading

Jobs increase on Peninsula

North Olympic Peninsula employers added more than 250 jobs in September as… Continue reading

Registration accepted now for 2018 Olympic Peninsula Tourism Summit

Registration is being accepted now for the 2018 Olympic… Continue reading

EYE ON BUSINESS: This week’s meetings

Luncheon meetings are usually Wednesdays at… Continue reading

Olympic Medical Center recognizes group

The Olympic Medical Center board of commissioners recognized seven… Continue reading

ON THE WATERFRONT: Yacht club completes big annual fundraiser

EARLIER THIS WEEK, the log boom at the west end of Port… Continue reading