Following suit with two other federal district court judges, U.S. District Judge Juan Sánchez of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on Thursday ruled that Google Inc. must comply with a warrant to turn over data stored overseas to aid a U.S. criminal investigation.
Sánchez's decision is another rebuke of a controversial ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 2016 in favor of Microsoft Corp. that warrants issued under the Stored Communications Act (SCA) cannot grant access to data stored outside the United States.
Since that ruling came down, Google has been fighting to quash warrants for information stored on servers across the globe, but has lost those battles in front of a number of magistrate judges.
Prior to Sanchez, the chief judge of the D.C. District Court and a district judge in San Francisco also affirmed that the SCA allows warrants to be enforced to gather overseas data. They all determined that because Google is actually handing over the data in the United States, the warrants are not an impermissible "extraterritorial" application of the law.
"This court agrees with the government that it is the location of the provider and where it will disclose the data that matter in the extraterritoriality analysis," the judge wrote, upholding an earlier decision by U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter. Sánchez heard oral arguments in the case in April.
In a footnote, Sánchez also explicitly rejected an analogy advanced by Google that ordering the data to be pulled from a foreign server is akin to ordering a company to get data from a safe deposit box in a foreign bank, or luggage left in a hotel overseas. He cited a dissent from a denial of rehearing en banc in the Microsoft case at the Second Circuit.
"The nature of electronic documents make this analogy inapt. Unlike paper documents, which have a tangible physical existence and location," Sánchez wrote, electronic documents are "literally intangible" and their location on a foreign servers is, in important ways, "merely virtual."
The judge wrote that this is especially true for Google, which "shards" digital documents into incomprehensible pieces and moves them between its servers located around the globe according to an algorithm, for network efficiency purposes.
Google, which is represented by Perkins Coie in the litigation, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. The company has previously argued that the SCA needs to be amended to avoid the possibility for legal conflicts between U.S. and foreign jurisdictions.
The warrants at issue in the case before Sánchez stem from two separate wire fraud investigations. Both the targets of the warrants and their alleged victims are based in the United States, according to the judge's ruling.
The Department of Justice in June petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Microsoft decision, arguing it was "inconsistent with this court's framework for analysis of extraterritoriality issues, and highly detrimental to criminal law enforcement."