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U.S. Supreme Court to hear Microsoft-DOJ dispute over emails stored at Ireland data center

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a long-running case between Microsoft and the Department of Justice that could have far-reaching implications in the tech industry.

The case centers around email from a Microsoft customer stored in the company’s Ireland data center. Last year, an appeals court judge blocked a warrant to seize the emails, but the DOJ petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case, a move Microsoft called “backward” at the time.

The dispute, which arose from a 2013 drug-trafficking investigation, hinges on interpretations of the Stored Communications Act (SCA) as part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that Congress passed in 1986. The outcome could set a precedent for situations in which authorities issue warrants for data stored by U.S. tech companies overseas.

Microsoft argues that extending the reach of such warrants internationally creates conflicts between the laws of different governments and makes it tougher to operate online services internationally. Microsoft also disgrees with the premise that emails are the property of the provider, rather than the customer.

“It puts everyone’s emails at risk – if the U.S. government can unilaterally use a warrant to seize emails outside the United States, what’s to stop other governments from acting unilaterally to seize emails stored inside the United States?” Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post. “At a time when countries are rightly worried about foreign government hacking, the DOJ’s interpretation would open the door to accomplishing the same thing.”

Two federal courts agreed with DOJ before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year sided with Microsoft and refused to rehear the case earlier this year. The decisions supporting DOJ interpreted the warrant as more like a subpoena. Law enforcement officers weren’t traveling to Ireland to physically confiscate evidence, so the location of the evidence was not relevant, those rulings concluded.

Regardless of the court’s outcome, Microsoft said it would support new laws better equipped to govern the internet and other modern technology than the more than 30-year-old regulations on the books today.

“The current laws were written for the era of the floppy disk, not the world of the cloud,” Smith wrote. “We believe that rather than arguing over an old law in court, it is time for Congress to act by passing new legislation, such as the International Communications Privacy Act (ICPA) of 2017.”

Google and other major tech industry players are also calling for legislative reform.
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