The FBI has been challenged over gagging orders that prevent telecoms firms from disclosing request for customer information

Court grapples with US surveillance gagging orders

A US appeals court is grappling with a lawsuit challenging government gagging orders preventing telecoms firms from revealing demands for customer records.

A US appeals court grappled with a lawsuit challenging government gagging orders preventing telecoms firms from revealing demands for customer records.

A lower court judge in San Francisco previously ruled such gag orders by the Federal Bureau of Investigation were unconstitutional in a lawsuit filed by an undisclosed telecom company.

At a hearing on yesterday, a three-judge 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals panel in San Francisco weighed whether the First Amendment allowed recipients of so-called "national security letters" to discuss them.

The plaintiff telecom company said the FBI's gag orders surrounding national security letters, which seek customer information like billing records rather than the content of individual messages, represent an "unprecedented grant of authority" and violate the First Amendment.

But the government calls such secrecy "vital" in national security cases because public disclosure could interfere with the probe or endanger someone's physical safety.

Tech companies have sought to clarify their relationships with US law enforcement and spying agencies, especially after revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that outlined the depth of US spying capabilities.

Twitter sued the US Department of Justice on Tuesday following months of fruitless negotiations over how much information the company could disclose about government surveillance.

In the case at the 9th Circuit Judge NR Smith, a George W Bush nominee, asked whether the government should have a greater responsibility to lift the gag order on its own to ease the burden on telecom companies who currently have to go to court, he said.

"It seems to me, if I'm going to narrow this particular statute, that there should be some obligation on the part of the government to end the order," Smith said. "Why isn't there?"

Douglas Letter, an attorney for the US Department of Justice, said the FBI does not have the resources to continuously review thousands of national security letters to determine if secrecy is still warranted. "The bureau would not be able to function," Letter said.

Tech companies including Google, Microsoft and Facebook have filed legal arguments against the government in the case, saying the government may not "foist a gag order upon the involuntary recipient of an NSL…let alone prohibit the recipient from even reporting periodically the aggregate number of such demands that it receives."

Judge Sandra Ikuta, another George W Bush nominee hearing arguments yesterday, suggested the law may not violate free speech because the government only sought secrecy for information it disclosed that impacts national security. It does not prohibit speech about information someone receives independently.

"This is not, 'I have this great idea. I've uncovered corruption, and government says, no, I may not speak about that," Ikuta said.

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