Microsoft triumphs over the U.S. Government in their ‘Warrant Case’

von Holger Schlüter

From a data protection perspective, over the past twelve months some very important developments in data protection law have taken place. On July 14, 2016 another milestone emerged.

In 2013 a New York magistrate judge issued a warrant in a drug trafficking investigation, directing Microsoft to seize and produce certain e-mails by granting the F.B.I. access to a customer’s email-account under § 2703 of the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”), 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701 et seq.

The catch, however, is that the server containing the emails is located in Ireland.

Is it legal to access a server located in another country? The U.S. Government thinks it is.

The U.S. Government claimed that it had the right to order Microsoft to grant the FBI remote access to the relevant information, arguing that is was irrelevant, in which country a subject to U.S. law stored their records.

Microsoft challenged the warrant in court, arguing that the U.S. government would violate territorial limitations of jurisdiction and thus another nation’s sovereignty. When the motion to quash the warrant was denied by the district judge, Microsoft was held in contempt of court for refusing to execute the warrant.

Microsoft soon gained tremendous support: 28 technology and media companies, 23 trade associations and advocacy groups, and 35 leading U.S. computer scientists. Even the Government of Ireland itself filed amicus briefs with the court. Also, Ireland reminded the U.S. Government that there were bilateral agreements in force that would actually enable the United States to receive administrative assistance from Ireland. The U.S. Government did not cease to insist on enforcing their warrant.

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