A federal law that protects the privacy of emails and other electronic communications extends to foreign nationals, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday, allowing Microsoft to protect the emails of an Indian citizen accused of fraud in Australia.
Indian wind-power company Suzlon Energy wants Microsoft to hand over emails from the Hotmail account of Rajagopalan Sridhar, whom Suzlon is suing for civil fraud in Australia. The energy company has accused Sridhar, who is currently in prison, of diverting profits, transferring company funds to Swiss bank accounts and other financial malfeasance.
A Seattle federal judge initially granted Suzlon’s request but then changed its tune after Microsoft filed a motion to quash. U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman eventually agreed with Microsoft that Sridhar’s email account is protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), even though he is foreign citizen.
With a simple reading of the law’s text, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit affirmed unanimously.
At first blush, the case appears to be more complicated than it actually is, according to the panel. But there is nothing in the privacy law to suggest that a U.S. company can ignore its obligations just because a customer is not a citizen.
“While the parties in this case raise issues of international policy, constitutional rights, and the fortuities of the Internet age, this case ultimately turns on the plain language of the relevant statute,” wrote U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford, sitting on the Seattle-based panel by designation from Santa Ana, Calif.
And that “plain language” says that the ECPA protects “any person.”
“Any person means any person, including foreign citizens,” Guilford wrote. “The court also finds that the statute as a whole confirms that Congress intended the term ‘any person’ to cover noncitizens.”
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