Social networking colossus Facebook is challenging a gag order from a US court that is currently preventing the organization from talking about three government search warrants. However, Facebook is claiming that the preventative measures implemented by the US court pose a threat to freedom of speech.
According to reports and court documents, Facebook wants to notify three of its users about the search warrants that are seeking their communications and information, and to provide those users with the opportunity to object to the warrants.
Facebook released a statement on the gag order and expressed its concern over a breach of the First Amendment concerns with this particular case. Facebook said: "We believe there are important First Amendment concerns with this case, including the government's refusal to let us notify three people of broad requests for their account information in connection with public events.”
The First Amendment to the US constitution guarantees certain rights including freedom of speech; however, William Miller, a spokesman for US prosecutors declined to comment on Facebook’s decision to challenge the gag order. In an undated court document it said that Facebook decided to challenge the gag order around the three warrants on the basis that free speech was at stake – and that the events underlying the government’s investigation were generally known to the public.
It has not yet been disclosed what the precise nature of the government’s investigation is; however, there have been suggestions that the timing of the proceedings coincide with charges against people who protested at Donald Trump’s inauguration in January. On the day, Donald Trump was sworn in as president - over 200 people were arrested in Washington as masked activists threw rocks at police, whilst multiple vehicles were set on fire.
Technology firms have consistently complied with thousands of requests for user data made on an annual basis by the government around the world, but in extraordinary circumstances, leading tech entities such as Microsoft and Twitter have defied and challenged government secrecy orders. Facebook fought a secrecy order in April, in relation to a disability fraud investigation, but it lost the case in New York highest state court.
Facebook says about half of U.S. requests are accompanied by a non-disclosure order prohibiting it from notifying affected users. In April, a local judge in Washington denied Facebook's request to remove the gag order there, according to the document. Facebook is appealing and has preserved the relevant records pending the outcome, the document said.
"The government can only insulate its actions from public scrutiny in this way in the rarest circumstances, which likely do not apply here," said Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for digital rights.