On 25th April 2014, a New York court ordered Microsoft to comply with a search warrant to disclose a large amount of content, contact, payment and other data relating to an email account hosted in Ireland. The decision sheds light on the views of certain members of the US judiciary towards sovereign jurisdiction and, in particular, the extent to which a US court should be able to compel the production of data stored in servers overseas — in this case, in Dublin.
The facts of the case in question (‘In Matter of a Warrant to Search a Certain E-Mail Account Controlled and Maintained by Microsoft Corporation’, 13 Mag. 2814, heard by Judge James Francis IV) were quite straightforward. On 4th December 2013, Judge Francis issued a search warrant in favour of the US government authorising the search and seizure of information associated with a specified web-based email account that was ‘stored at premises owned, maintained, controlled, or operated by Microsoft Corporation’. Microsoft sought to quash the warrant on the basis that it directed the production of information stored in Dublin, and that courts in the United States are not authorised to issue warrants for extraterritorial search and seizure.
US government position
The US government sought to rely on prior case law to argue that an entity lawfully obligated to produce information must do so regardless of the location of that information. The government produced academic literature demonstrating that this approach was consistent with the view that, in the context of digital information, ‘a search occurs when information from or about the data are exposed to possible human observation, such as when it appears on a screen, rather than when it is copied by the hard drive or processed by the computer.’
Microsoft’s position was that Federal Courts lack the authority to issue warrants for the search and seizure of property outside the territorial limits of the United States. This presumption against territorial application is well enshrined in US law and provides that ‘when a statute gives no clear indication of an extraterritorial application, it has none’, to reflect the ‘presumption that United States law governs domestically but does not rule the world’ (Microsoft Corp. v. AT & T Corp., 550 U.S. 437, 454 (2007)). The principle is also a fundamental tenet of international law.
This article first appeared in Volume 14, Issue 6 of the Privacy & Data Protection Journal and is reproduced with the kind permission of it’s publisher PDP Journals.Download PDF