Microsoft may be in contempt of court

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Microsoft is getting near a ‘contempt of court’ citation in their court case against the US government over email privacy.

The case began when Microsoft received a search warrant for emails of a customer.  The emails are on a Microsoft server in Ireland.  Microsoft is challenging the US law which allows the US authorities access to data on any server controlled by an American company, no matter where it is.

We’ve been quite cynical about this legal challenge by Microsoft.  It looks like more of a PR exercise, giving Microsoft the appearance of concern about customer privacy rather than a legitimate effort to overturn the law.

After all, the law is a decade old with no sign of complaint by Microsoft and other large tech companies.  Only now does one company challenge the law.  Microsoft has been happy to read customers emails in their own self-interest without any court approval and they co-operate with the NSA on a daily basis.

Being in ‘contempt of court’ isn’t a big deal and not a sign of Microsoft’s determination to protect customer’s privacy.    It’s a legal maneuver to allow the current decision to be appealed to a higher court .

Appearances aside, Microsoft does have two reasons to pursue the case in their own interests:

  1. Legal conflict. If Microsoft hands over the customers emails they will be in breach of Irish law.  Refuse to comply and they are breaking US law.  If pushed, Microsoft will choose US law over that of any other country but they’d prefer not to be caught breaking any law.
  2. Lost sales. The real issue behind this case is, as usual, money.   Microsoft is losing sales of cloud services because of growing concerns about security of personal and corporate data.  The Germans have been strong in refusing to buy from Microsoft for that reason.   There’s plenty of other places and companies coming to the same conclusion.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens but the US law seems quite firm and not likely to be overturned or repealed.

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