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Facebook, Microsoft join Google's call for PRISM transparency

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Following Google's lead, Microsoft and Facebook have both made formal requests to the U.S. government about the controversial PRISM surveillance program.

"Can you loosen these gags a little bit?"

All three companies have, since Tuesday, issued statements asking to be able to share information about how many requests for information they get from the NSA. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the NSA and FBI can quickly obtain court orders for information on an individual, and at the same time demand that the company who provides that information not say a word to anybody else about it.

Much of how PRISM works is still unknown, but President Obama has admitted it's enabled by FISA courts, and the participating companies insist they only comply to the extent required by law.

But now—motivated by a desire for transparency, or perhaps in part to save their reputations—the companies are publicly lobbying the government for the right to disclose how many FISA-enabled requests they get.

First, Google weighed in Tuesday, in an open letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller:

We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.

Then Ted Ullyot, Facebook general counsel, echoed that sentiment:

We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond. We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive.

And in an emailed statement to Reuters, Microsoft made the same request:

Permitting greater transparency on the aggregate volume and scope of national security requests, including FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) orders, would help the community understand and debate these important issues.

On that last point, Google's official Twitter account joked that Microsoft's statement was as shocking as the existence of PRISM itself.

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