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U.S. Government Threatened Yahoo with a $250,000 Fine Per-Day to Force Access to User Data

The United States government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 a day in 2008 if the company failed to comply with handing over access to users communications, which Yahoo believed was unconstitutional, according to court documents released Thursday. Released documents outline how the government forced Yahoo and other American tech companies to comply with the National Security Agency (NSA) PRISM program.

Documents released earlier today contain 1,500 pages of secret and legal battles that show Yahoo continuously tried to resist government surveillance of their users. As the company continuously lost in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC, court oversees government spying) and its review court, Yahoo became one of the first company’s to provide information to the PRISM program, a top secret extensive surveillance program built by the NSA to reap billions of lines of communications, as disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

As Yahoo was one of the first and largest tech companies to comply, the Washington Post reported that the government used the FISC court decision in the Yahoo case to pressure other tech companies to comply saying it was “constitutionally sound.” Later many companies such as Google, YouTube, AOL and Skype were found to be participating in the mass PRISM surveillance program.

Yahoo publicly released a statement on the company Tumblr outlining their side of the story:

“Despite the declassification and release, portions of the documents remain sealed and classified to this day, unknown even to our team. The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts. At one point, the U.S. Government threatened the imposition of $250,000 in fines per day if we refused to comply.”

The disclosed documents include:

  • An expanded version of the FISC-R opinion in the case, originally released in 2008 in a more redacted form.
  • The release of the never-before-seen 2008 FISC opinion that we challenged on appeal.
  • The parties’ briefs, including some of the lower court briefings in the appendices.
  • An Ex-Parte Appendix of classified filings.
  • A partially redacted certification filed with the FISC, as well as a mostly unredacted directive that Yahoo received.

The legal battle Yahoo ensued had been hidden from the public, and publicly released documents at the time were found heavily redacted. Yahoo’s name was blacked out in the statements and not revealed until later 2013. Yahoo asked for declassification of the court materials, the government had finished its redaction in August and approved. The FISC review court ordered the declassified material to be released today, only the review documents will be released, not Yahoo’s original challenge.

“Our fight continues. We are still pushing for the FISC to release materials from the 2007-2008 case in the lower court. The FISC indicated previously that it was waiting on the FISC-R ruling in relation to the 2008 appeal before moving forward. Now that the FISC-R matter is resolved, we will work hard to make the materials from the FISC case public, as well,” Yahoo wrote.

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