US Government Sues ISP for Questioning its Authority

What happens when an American ISP decides that it wants to protect their customers privacy? Apparently, it gets litigated by the Department of Justice. That’s what happened to one ISP when it questioned a National Security Letter (NSL).

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

It’s the kind of story that sparks the sarcastic comments, “America, land of the free!” – especially from non-US users. An American ISP (that apparently hasn’t been named) questioned an NSL request from authorities. Even though the ISP reportedly used the appropriate channels, the Department of Justice decided to litigate. From Wired’s Threat Level:

Last year, when a telecommunications company received an ultra-secret demand letter from the FBI seeking information about a customer or customers, the telecom took an extraordinary step — it challenged the underlying authority of the FBI’s National Security Letter, as well as the legitimacy of the gag order that came with it.

Both challenges are allowed under a federal law that governs NSLs, a power greatly expanded under the Patriot Act that allows the government to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge. The FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs and been reprimanded for abusing them — though almost none of the requests have been challenged by the recipients.

After the telecom challenged its NSL last year, the Justice Department took its own extraordinary measure: It sued the company, arguing in court documents that the company was violating the law by challenging its authority.

That’s a pretty intense charge, according to Matt Zimmerman, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the anonymous telecom.

“It’s a huge deal to say you are in violation of federal law having to do with a national security investigation,” says Zimmerman. “That is extraordinarily aggressive from my standpoint. They’re saying you are violating the law by challenging our authority here.”

While the article goes on to discuss the long and controversial past of NSLs, I’d say it really makes you think about what other ISPs have been doing this whole time and how compliant they have been to NSLs – especially when the FBI has been challenged on how abusive some of these NSLs might have gotten over the years.

Personally, I would hardly find fault for any American that winds up using a VPN or Tor when they get to see news stories like this pop up every once in a while – even if it seems like an overly paranoid thing to do.

What’s more is what kind of message the US government is sending in all of this. Is the department of Justice run by Eric Cartman from South Park or something? This lawsuit almost sounds like bully tactics to me.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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