Microsoft wins landmark ruling preventing US snooping on foreign emails

Microsoft and other tech companies cannot be compelled to give the US government access to customer emails stored on servers outside the United States, following a landmark ruling by the federal appeals court.

The decision is a defeat for the US Department of Justice, and a victory for privacy advocates and technology companies offering cloud computing and other services around the world.

The ruling concluded that information held on servers outside the US is beyond the reach of domestic search warrants.

Microsoft had been challenging a warrant seeking emails stored on a server in Dublin, Ireland, in a narcotics case. It was believed to be the first case of a US company challenging a domestic search warrant seeking data held outside the country.

The decision reverses a ruling from July 2014 in which Microsoft was compelled to turn over externally stored emails.

"We obviously welcome today's decision," said Microsoft president Brad Smith.

He said the decision gives people more confidence to rely on their own countries' laws to protect their privacy, rather than worry about foreign interference, and helps ensure that "legal protections of the physical world apply in the digital domain".

But Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said the agency was disappointed by the decision and was reviewing its legal options.

The case has attracted strong interest from the technology and media sectors, amid concern that giving prosecutors expansive power to collect data outside the country could make it harder for US companies to compete there.

Amazon, Apple, Cisco, CNN, Fox News, Verizon and many other companies filed briefs supporting Microsoft's appeal.

Had the court gone the other way, "it would have been like the Wild West, with no clear, stable legal rules applying," said Greg Nojeim, senior counsel with the non-profit Center for Democracy & Technology.

Microsoft had said the warrant could not reach emails on the Dublin server because US law did not apply there, and expressed concern that enforcing it could spark a global "free-for-all" where law enforcement authorities elsewhere might seize emails belonging to Americans and stored in the United States.

Federal prosecutors countered that quashing warrants such as Microsoft's would impede their own law enforcement efforts.

But Judge Carney said limiting the reach of warrants serves "the interest of comity" that normally governs cross-border criminal investigations.

She said that comity is also reflected in treaties between the United States and all European Union countries, including Ireland, to assist each other in such probes.

The Justice Department is working on a bilateral plan to streamline how US and British authorities request data from companies in each other's country.

Microsoft, which bought LinkedIn for £18.5bn last month, also sued the US government in April for the right to inform its users when a federal agency is snooping on their emails. 

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