09/12/2013 10:20 am ET

Americans Have a Right to Know Details of Government Data Requests

Abusive government surveillance practices have violated the privacy and trust of the American people. But they’ve also left many companies who do business online in a lurch about what exactly they are allowed to tell their clients and stakeholders when faced with large numbers of secret government requests for their users’ data. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer brought this to national attention Wednesday, arguing that Yahoo can't refuse to cooperate with the NSA because "releasing classified information is treason."

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests not only breach the privacy of individual users, but also put companies that have previously made significant efforts toward promoting transparency and security between a rock and a hard place.

Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have all separately filed motions asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to allow them to be more transparent with users about where their private information is going and how often it’s requested.

This week, Google submitted an amended petition to report even more detailed statistics about the information requests they receive, to publish these figures more frequently, as well as to have an oral argument on their petition that would be open to the public.

Yahoo also requested that it publicize the number of requests they receive for user data from the government. And Facebook separately filed to be more transparent about the type and amount of data they are asked to hand over. All three companies also made similar requests to the White House and Congress in July.

Battles like this can even turn old rivals into allies, uniting both Microsoft and Google in suing the U.S. government to put a stop to the secretive nature of FISA requests.

Even if none of these legal actions are successful, the ability of these tech giants to use actions like these to bring public awareness to the government’s troubling cloak and dagger practices shouldn’t be underestimated. It may even help get Congress to do something.

If the government is going to continue the practice of forcing private companies to hand over users’ private information in the name of national security, then the American public should have a right to know which companies are being asked and how often. Otherwise, we are at risk of undermining the trust we place in the digital economy, and the services we rely on every day.