ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A court has ordered the release of previously sealed documents that reveal a legal struggle between the federal government and Silicon Valley firms. The Obama administration tried to force Yahoo and other tech companies to turn over information on their users' online communications. The Washington Post has examined the court documents, which date back about six years. Reporter Craig Timberg broke the story, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.
CRAIG TIMBERG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And first, remind us what information the government was demanding and why.
TIMBERG: They wanted email communications of people outside the United States. And this was part of the global war on terrorism effort that had quite a wide reach.
SIEGEL: Well, based on the information in the newly released documents, how did Yahoo try to resist?
TIMBERG: So Yahoo was served with an order to essentially give the government access to its communications of its users without having a specific warrant on each of those users. And Yahoo fought a protracted legal battle to try to stop this. They thought it was a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
SIEGEL: We should explain, all of this took part in a court - this is in the Fisa court?
TIMBERG: Right. It's a highly secretive court in Washington, D.C. that oversees foreign intelligence collection. And so there was a court case. There was a resolution to that court case. There was an appeal. There was a resolution of the appeal. And there was ultimately a $250,000 a day fine that was threatened against Yahoo if it didn't comply.
SIEGEL: Now, can we assume that if there was litigation of this kind between the federal government and Yahoo, that there were similar fights going on with other tech firms?
TIMBERG: Not exactly. What it looks like is that yahoo fought back from one of the early orders to turn over this information. And when they lost, that became essentially, you know, a document that the government could use to compel the other companies to comply. They could say, hey, look. Yahoo fought. They lost. It's constitutional. You guys have to get with the program.
SIEGEL: You know, you mentioned fines threatened - was it $250,000 a day?
SIEGEL: It sounds like a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But we're talking about firms that have, you know, stratospheric values. How did Yahoo regard those threats of fines?
TIMBERG: Well, I mean, you know, a fine of that magnitude that comes every day at a certain point, I think, would become consequential for any company. But more importantly, you know, they lost this fight, right? I mean, they had to comply in order to continue operating legally in the United States. They didn't have a choice. And that's one of the things you hear most often from these tech companies. They feel as though, you know - that the world thinks that they were turning over their documents to the NSA. They were ordered to turn over their documents. And this is more evidence that that's true.
SIEGEL: Because this was kept secret for all these years, we didn't know that Yahoo was really - they'd gone to the mat. I mean, they were going to fight over this. And they fought for a very long time, from what you're reporting.
TIMBERG: Well, word had leaked out about a year ago that there was a court case involving Yahoo. But we didn't know much about it, and we didn't know why, ultimately, the Fisa court overruled them and said that, sorry, you know, your idea of what the constitutional protections are for you just are completely wrong.
SIEGEL: Craig Timberg of The Washington Post, thanks for talking with us.
TIMBERG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.