The federal government was so determined to collect the Internet communications of Yahoo customers in 2008 that it threatened the company with fines of $250,000 per day if it did not immediately comply with a secret court order to turn over the data.
The threat — which was made public Thursday as part of about 1,500 pages of previously classified documents that were unsealed by a federal court — sheds a rare spotlight on the fight between Internet companies and the government over the ground rules and procedures for the secret surveillance of Americans and foreigners following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, companies that receive data requests are prohibited by law from talking about the substance of the interactions or even acknowledging they occurred.
Yahoo’s 2008 challenge to the warrantless surveillance law and an appeals court’s rejection of that challenge were first reported by The New York Times last year, shortly after Edward J. Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor, exposed a more extensive government surveillance program called Prism through classified documents leaked to The Washington Post and The Guardian. The court documents released Thursday show that Yahoo was forced to comply with the order to turn over data even though the government and the appeals court had yet to set out clear rules to minimize the amount of data collected from Americans, who were supposed to have special protection under the law, which was principally aimed at foreigners. The records also provide perhaps the clearest corroboration yet of the Internet companies’ contention that they did not provide the government with direct access to vast amount of customer data on their computers.
Overall, the cache of documents shows how Yahoo fought the government and eventually lost its appeal. That helped to set the stage for a vast expansion of the federal government’s surveillance of Internet users through the secret Prism program.