Maya Digre, MJLST Staffer
On October 16th, 2017 the United States Supreme Court granted the Federal Government’s petition for certiorari in United States v. Microsoft Corp. The case is about a warrant issued to Microsoft that ordered it to seize and produce the contents of a customer’s e-mail account that the government believed was being used in furtherance of narcotics trafficking. Microsoft produced the non-content information that was stored in the U.S., but moved to quash the warrant with respect to the information that was stored abroad in Ireland. Microsoft claimed that the only way to access the information was through the Dublin data center, even though this data center could also be accessed by their database management program located at some of their U.S. locations.
The district court of New York determined that Microsoft was in civil contempt for not complying with the warrant. The 2nd Circuit reversed, stating that “Neither explicitly or implicitly does the statute envision the application of its warrant provision overseas” and “the application of the Act that the government proposes – interpreting ‘warrant’ to require a service provider to retrieve material from beyond the borders of the United States – would require us to disregard the presumption against extraterritoriality.” The court used traditional tools of statutory interpretation in the opinion including plain meaning, presumption against extraterritoriality, and legislative history.
The issue in the case, according to ScotusBlog is “whether a United States provider of email services must comply with a probable-cause-based warrant issued under 18 U.S.C. § 2703 by making disclosure in the United States of electronic communications within that provider’s control, even if the provider has decided to store that material abroad.” Essentially, the dispute centers on the scope of the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”) with respect to information that is stored abroad. The larger issue is the tension between international privacy laws, and the absolute nature of warrants issued in the United States. According to the New York Times, “the case is part of a broader clash between the technology industry and the federal government in the digital age.”
I think that the broader issue is something that the Supreme Court should address. However, I am not certain that this is the best case for the court. The fact that Microsoft can access the information from data centers in the United States with their database management program seems to weaken their claim. The case may be stronger for companies who cannot access information that they store abroad from within the United States. Regardless of this weakness, the Supreme Court should rule in favor of the State to preserve the force of warrants of this nature. It was Microsoft’s choice to store the information abroad, and I don’t think the choices of companies should impede legitimate crime-fighting goals of the government. Additionally, if the Court ruled that the warrant does not reach information that is stored abroad, this may incentivize companies to keep their information out of the reach of a U.S. warrant by storing it abroad. This is not a favorable policy choice for the Supreme Court to make; the justices should rule in favor of the government.
Unfortunately, the Court will not get to make a ruling on this case after Microsoft decided to drop it following the DOJ’s agreement to change its policy.