Google is asking the government to allow it to release more information about how many national security requests it received as part of an effort to improve the company's record on privacy issues, which it says has been damaged by recent press reports.
"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue. However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation," Google's chief legal officer, Lee Drummond, wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Shortly after Google released its letter to the government, Facebook made a similar petition that it be free to publish a "transparency" report about its compliance with FISA orders.
"In the past, we have questioned the value of releasing a transparency report that, because of exactly these types of government restrictions on disclosure, is necessarily incomplete and therefore potentially misleading to users," wrote Facebook general counsel Ted Ullyot in a statement today. "We would welcome the opportunity to provide a transparency report that allows us to share with those who use Facebook around the world a complete picture of the government requests we receive, and how we respond."
"We urge the United States government to help make that possible by allowing companies to include information about the size and scope of national security requests we receive, and look forward to publishing a report that includes that information," Ullyot said.
The requests from the two internet giants come after two stories in the Guardian and the Washington Post suggested that a National Security Agency program, code-named PRISM, gave the government "direct access" to the servers of several internet companies, including Google.
After the first press reports emerged, Google on Friday released a carefully worded statement denying it gives the government "back door" access to its servers.
"Google cares deeply about the security of our users' data. We disclose user data to government in accordance with the law, and we review all such requests carefully," a spokesman said in a statement. "From time to time, people allege that we have created a government 'back door' into our systems, but Google does not have a 'back door' for the government to access private user data."
Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg also personally slammed the "outrageous" press reports about PRISM in a post on Saturday.
But both Google and Facebook, like all companies that are legally obligated to comply with Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court orders, are barred from talking about it.
These latest requests turn the onus back to the government to be more clear about what the companies' roles have actually been in the PRISM program.
"We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures-in terms of both the number we receive and their scope," Drummond continued. "Google's numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide."