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Court: Foreigners’ e-mails protected by privacy act

Hearing a case filed against Microsoft, a federal appeals court has ruled that federal privacy law generally prevents e-mail providers from releasing non-U.S. residents’ e-mails.

Suzlon Energy Ltd. sought a court order requiring Microsoft to release e-mail stored in the Hotmail account of Rajagopalan Sridhar, an Indian citizen imprisoned for defrauding Suzlon.

In U.S. District Court at Seattle, Suzlon, a global wind power firm headquartered in India, unsuccessfully sought an order requiring Microsoft to produce Sridhar’s e-mail for use in a civil suit proceeding in Australia. Suzlon appealed U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which found in Microsoft’s favor Monday.

The unanimous three-judge panel found the Electronic Communications Privacy Act – which makes it illegal for an e-mail provider to divulge clients’ e-mails under most circumstances – protects foreign citizens as well as U.S. residents.

Noting that the privacy act states that e-mail providers “shall not knowingly divulge to any person or entity the contents of a communication while in electronic storage by that service,” the appellate court found that the restriction plainly covers non-U.S. citizens.