The Washington Post

Microsoft targets vacationing Hill staffers with e-mail privacy ad campaign

Imagine you're a Hill staffer, taking some time to enjoy the end of summer at your favorite nearby beach. You've vowed to check your e-mail only once per hour, staked out a spot in the shade and even picked up the local paper to truly get away. And then:


Microsoft, getting a jump on the fall political season, took out full-page ads in the Outer Banks Sentinel, Martha's Vineyard Times and Rehoboth Beach's Cape Gazette to remind Washingtonians on vacation about e-mail privacy laws. The ads are part of an ongoing campaign by Microsoft to convince lawmakers to reform the laws.

Microsoft has been pushing for new privacy rules ever since a federal judge this summer ordered the company to turn over a customer's e-mails from an overseas server to U.S. law enforcement. Microsoft and several privacy advocates argued that doing so would set a dangerous precedent that would allow the U.S. government to order firms to give up content regardless of where the data are stored.

The order is on hold to give Microsoft time to appeal, which it has vowed to do. In the meantime, the company is also trying to share its side of the issue, with blog posts and speeches from Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith. Last month, Microsoft launched a dedicated site on the issue, called DigitalConstitution.com.

As my Washington Post colleague Ellen Nakashima reported, the government  has an interest in gaining access to communications stored overseas without having to rely solely on cooperation from foreign law enforcement. But several tech companies, including Apple, AT&T, Cisco and Verizon, have supported Microsoft's position that e-mails and personal information stored in the cloud should have the same privacy protections as those stored on paper -- rather than being treated as a company's business records, as they currently are.

Microsoft and other tech firms are also calling on Congress to debate these issues and settle the matter with legislation, rather than leaving it up to the courts to decide.

“This ad seeks to draw attention again to the government’s need to improve the balance between digital privacy and public safety," the company said in a statement.

And so, the campaign is dogging the steps of policymakers, reminding them that these issues don't just go away just because Congress is out of session. In fact, as the ad notes, every time staffers check their e-mail from the beach, they're using the very technology that's at issue in the case.

Sharon Pro, the office manager for the Outer Banks Sentinel, said she's never seen a company target Washington-based beachgoers on their vacations before.  "I certainly thought it was a good ad," she said.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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