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US reaches deal with Internet companies on spy data

The Obama administration and some of the nation's biggest providers of Internet services have settled their dispute over how much the companies can reveal about requests for customer information from US intelligence agencies, according to court documents filed on Monday. 

The settlement will likely resolve a lawsuit against the government brought by Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft, and LinkedIn. They wanted authority to disclose more specific information about how often the FBI and NSA  sought data on their users.

"Permitting disclosure of this aggregate data addresses an important area of concern to communications providers and the public.  But more work remains on other issues. In the weeks ahead, additional steps must be taken in order to fully implement the reforms directed by the President," said Attorney General Eric Holder and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in a joint statement.

NSA leaker Edward Snowden went on the record from his hiding place in Russia during a web-based question and answer session.

The companies went to court soon after the first stories were published last spring based on material stolen by Edward Snowden detailing the government's efforts to get information about e-mail users.

The companies said they were eager to demonstrate that they were not simply handing over user data in a wholesale manner.  But because the intelligence agency requests were classified, they were barred from doing so.

Yahoo said its inability to respond "harmed its reputation and has undermined its business not only in the United States but worldwide."

Under the agreement, the companies — and other Internet service providers that did not join the lawsuit — will be able to report in rough numbers how often intelligence agencies ask them for information, broken down by category, and how many customers are affected.

The companies can separately report the number of national security demands from the FBI and orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court they receive. They can disclose how many were for actual e-mail content, and they can also reveal the number of customer accounts affected.

But for all those categories, the companies cannot report specific figures. Instead, they can only disclose how many thousands of requests they get — from zero to 999, 1000 to 1999, and so on.

New documents from Edward Snowden show that the NSA tracks where billions of cellphone calls are made worldwide; however, the NSA says it doesn't collect such data on domestic calls. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

If the companies instead lump together all the intelligence requests into a single category, they can report them in finer detail  — from zero to 250, 215 to 500, and so on.

Under the agreement, the companies must wait at least six months before disclosing any information about the intelligence requests.

An administration official said the president and representatives of the companies reached a tentative agreement 10 days ago, despite resistance from the intelligence community. 

The result is a compromise between the companies, which sought to be as specific as possible, and the intelligence agencies, which fearing that the disclosures would reveal too much about their operations.

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