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Justice Department talks with Microsoft and Google stall

The Google signage is seen at the company's headquarters in New York January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
The Google signage is seen at the company's headquarters in New York January 8, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice's talks with Microsoft Corp and Google Inc have hit a wall as the government pushes back at the tech companies' demand for the ability to disclose the now-secret data requests they receive.

Microsoft's general counsel, Brad Smith, on Friday described as a failure the outcome of the companies' recent negotiations with the government over the disclosure of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders the companies receive.

"While we appreciate the good faith and earnest efforts by the capable government lawyers with whom we negotiated, we are disappointed that these negotiations ended in failure," he said.

The director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, on Thursday pledged to disclose aggregate numbers of FISA orders issued to tech and telecom companies, but the intelligence community has not agreed to allow particular companies to make such disclosures.

"FISA and national security letters are an important part of our effort to keep the nation and its citizens safe, and disclosing more detailed information about how they are used and to whom they are directed can obviously help our enemies avoid detection," Clapper said in a statement.

The tech sector has been pushing for greater transparency of government data requests as companies seek to shake off the concerns about their involvement in vast secret U.S. surveillance programs revealed by former spy contractor Edward Snowden.

"Google's reputation and business has been harmed by the false or misleading reports in the media, and Google's users are concerned by the allegations. Google must respond to such claims with more than generalities," the company said in a June motion filed with the FISA court, alongside a similar Microsoft filing.

The Department of Justice on Friday was due to file in a secret surveillance court its response to Microsoft and Google's motions filed in the wake of Snowden's leaks.

Filings in the court are classified, and the department's response was not published on the court's website late on Friday. A department spokesperson declined comment.

"We are deeply disappointed that despite months of negotiations and the efforts of many companies, the government has not yet permitted our industry to release more detailed and granular information about those requests," the general counsel for Facebook Inc, Colin Stretch, said in a statement.

The tech companies and privacy advocates tepidly welcomed Clapper's pledge for annual reports on numbers of data requests to Internet and phone companies, but expressed disappointment at stopping short of more detailed breakdowns.

"The new data that the government plans to publish is not nearly enough to justify the government's continued attempts to gag companies like Google and Microsoft and prevent them from engaging in meaningful transparency reporting of their own," said Kevin Bankston, director of free expression at privacy group Center for Democracy and Technology.

A Google spokesperson called Clapper's announcement "a step in the right direction," while adding, "There is still too much secrecy around these requests and that more openness is needed."

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; additional reporting by Joseph Menn and David Ingram; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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