Sep 12, 2014 · 2 minutes

In 2008, Yahoo was threatened by the government with a $250,000 fine for every day it refused to comply with requests to submit user data for use in the National Security Agency's PRISM program, according to declassified documents published by the company on Thursday.

The revelation serves as a vindication of sorts for Yahoo, which has been implicated in many reports about governmental surveillance programs, from PRISM to the GCHQ's attempts to create a sophisticated facial-recognition system with images snatched from a Yahoo service. The Washington Post describes the company's declining reputation in its report on the threat:

In the aftermath of the revelations, the companies have struggled to defend themselves against accusations that they were willing participants in government surveillance programs — an allegation that has been particularly damaging to the reputations of these companies overseas, including in lucrative markets in Europe.

Yahoo, which endured heavy criticism after The Washington Post and Britain’s Guardian newspaper used Snowden’s documents to reveal the existence of PRISM last year, was legally bound from revealing its efforts in attempting to resist government pressure. This means that Yahoo and other tech companies have been forced into a dangerous place between the government's threats if it doesn't hand over user data, and the public's outrage at complying with and hiding those requests.

It also demonstrates the lengths to which these governments will go to force tech companies to cooperate with them. Governments don't threaten to fine a company more than $1 million per week for data requests those companies are forbidden to share with the public unless the need for that data -- or at least the desire for it -- crosses the line between "urgent" and "desperate."

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Patrick Toomey recognized this in a statement to the New York Times in which he praised Yahoo while placing the issue into its much larger context:

“Yahoo should be lauded for standing up to sweeping government demands for its customers’ private data. But today’s release only underscores the need for basic structural reforms to bring transparency to the NSA’s surveillance activities.”
Despite the challenge of changing a system that most people aren't allowed to know about, let alone discuss the specifics of, yesterday's document dump was a sure win for those who wish to learn more about governmental efforts to surveil millions of people without probable cause. It can't be anything but a win -- knowledge is power, and these little morsels of knowledge are all most of us have to support our outrage at government surveillance and our cries for change.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]