Microsoft scored a big legal victory today in a closely watched court case with data privacy implications for individuals and businesses around the world.
On July 14, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York reversed an earlier District Court ruling that ordered Microsoft to turn over Outlook.com emails sought by the U.S. Department of Justice that were stored on a data center located in Ireland. In 2013, the DOJ had served the Redmond, Wash.-based technology giant a warrant for the emails. Arguing that under U.S. law, warrants cannot be enforced in other countries, Microsoft challenged the U.S. government in court.
Today, the Second Circuit sided with Microsoft.
"We conclude that Congress did not intend the SCA's [Stored Communications Act's] warrant provisions to apply extraterritorially," stated the court in its 43-page decision. "The focus of those provisions is protection of a user’s privacy interests. Accordingly, the SCA does not authorize a U.S. court to issue and enforce an SCA warrant against a United States‐based service provider for the contents of a customer's electronic communications stored on servers located outside the United States."
Brad Smith, Microsoft's president and chief legal officer, praised the decision, calling it "a major victory for the protection of people's privacy rights under their own laws rather than the reach of foreign governments," in a blog post. "As a global company we've long recognized that if people around the world are to trust the technology they use, they need to have confidence that their personal information will be protected by the laws of their own country."
The Ireland Email Case, as the legal saga came to be known, caught the attention of other major Web and cloud services providers, several with overseas operations. In 2014, several technology companies, including Apple, Amazon and Hewlett-Packard (before its split), joined dozens of trade associations and leading computer scientists to file friend of the court briefs in support of Microsoft's stance.
Also among the organizations that lent Microsoft their support was the Center for Democracy & Technology.
"This ruling is a major affirmation that the rights we enjoy in the physical world continue to apply in the digital world," said Greg Nojeim, director of the Freedom, Security and Technology Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology, in a statement. "By declaring that a US warrant cannot reach communications content stored abroad, the court ruled strongly in favor of privacy and national rule of law."
Morgan Reed, executive director of the ACT | App Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade organization representing mobile app developers and device makers, said the latest court ruling is a win for both consumers and cloud providers.
"Consumers demand access to data on their mobile devices from any location. They have come to expect that documents stored online receive the same protections as those in a physical form," he said in an email sent to eWEEK.
"Microsoft's interest in this case was no different than that of fledgling startups. Specifically, American companies need clarity around how and when law enforcement can access data stored overseas," continued Reed.