What Prism slide-presentation means by "direct access" to Internet giants' servers

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick has further thoughts on the NYT piece on Prism, in which they try to resolve the contradiction between the NSA and Obama's admission that Prism exists and the leaked NSA slide deck is real, and the categorical (and eerily similar) denials from the companies involved (as well as Twitter's glaring absence from the list of cooperating companies):

This is not, by the way, the first time that we've seen Twitter stand up and fight for a user's rights against a government request for data. Over two years ago, we pointed out that Twitter, alone among tech companies, fought back when a court ordered it to hand over user info. Twitter sought, and eventually got, permission to tell the user, and allow that user to try to fight back. It later came out that, as part of that same investigation, the government also had requested information from Google and Sonic.net, with Sonic.net fighting back and losing. It never became clear whether Google fought back.

Separately, however, Chris Soghoian has noted that an "unnamed company" fought back and lost against a FISA court order… and that, according to the PowerPoint presentation, Google "joined" PRISM just a few months later. It is possible that Google fought joining the program, and then only did so after losing in court. That said, Google's most recent denial insists that "the government does not have access to Google servers—not directly, or via a back door, or a so-called drop box." Perhaps they don't consider a special server set up for lawfully required information a "drop box," but others certainly might.

In the end, it appears that the initial Washington Post report was overblown in that it suggested direct access to all servers, rather than specific servers, set up to provide information that was required. That said, it is still true that the FISA Court appears to issue a fair number of secret orders for information from a variety of technology companies, some of them quite broad, and that many of the biggest tech companies have set up systems to make it easier to give the NSA/FBI and others access to that info — though, they are often required by law to provide that information. The real outrage remains that all of this is happening in complete secrecy, where there is little real oversight to stop this from being abused. As we noted just a few weeks ago, the FISA Court has become a rubber stamp, rejecting no requests at all in the past two years.

More Details On PRISM Revealed; Twitter Deserves Kudos For Refusing To Give In