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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Recent revelations about Trump-era data grabs by federal authorities have put the U.S. in a tricky spot as it competes with China to lead the digital age.

The assumption in the West is that U.S. tech companies only provide the government with data when it follows the rules and goes after specific suspects — while, in China, tech companies are forced to share everything with the government.

Yes, but: Reality is messier.

  • As the Trump Justice Department pursued leaks and critics in Congress, the media and the White House itself, it obtained court orders to scoop up data from Apple, Microsoft and other tech providers.
  • Then courts put the companies under gag orders that blocked them from warning their customers they'd been targeted — or even revealing the existence of the gag orders themselves.

Why it matters: The frequency and possible partisan motivation of these U.S. data grabs could undercut U.S. leverage as it rallies allies to oppose China and negotiates a new agreement with Europe on data sharing and storage.

Microsoft president Brad Smith called for an end to such secret court orders in a recent Washington Post opinion piece.

  • He noted that, as more and more personal communications get backed up to cloud providers, the potential targets for such orders are multiplying.

Between the lines: Tech companies generally follow a single standard for dealing with governments around the world: they obey the local laws of the country where they are doing business.

  • In most cases, at government request, tech providers offer up metadata like call logs rather than the content of communications. But that can be revealing enough.
  • Sometimes operating under local laws proves impossible or unconscionable, and the companies pull out or get kicked out, as happened a little over a decade ago to Facebook and Google search in China.

On occasion, the U.S. government has pressed tech companies further than they are willing to go.

  • Apple fought an FBI request that it create a version of its operating system that would give the agency access to an encrypted iPhone used by a shooter in a 2015 San Bernardino mass killing.

More often, though, tech companies find their hands tied because a legal entity has served them with a valid order.

  • Firms have fought back with transparency reports or the use of a warrant canary to signal to the public when they have been forced to covertly provide customer information.

Flashback: The Trump-era gag orders continue a long tradition of the U.S. government simultaneously grabbing data from tech companies and demanding their silence, dating back to the FISA courts created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

  • The Snowden revelations showed how the NSA managed to get bulk data from telecom firms in that era.

Go deeper

Jul 29, 2021 - Technology

Ad boom rains billions on Big Tech

Data: Company filings; Chart: Axios Visuals

Advertising growth was the chief driver of tech's blowout quarter, as the economy snapped back from the pandemic and a long-term shift to digital went into overdrive.

By the numbers: Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google all posted record ad revenue growth rates in earnings reports for 2021's second quarter.

2 wildfires ravage Northern California homes as thousands evacuate

Firefighters monitoring the scene as flames from the Dixie Fire jump across highway 89 near Greenville, California, on Tuesday. Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

Two massive California wildfires have triggered new mandatory evacuation orders for thousands of people and destroyed homes and businesses in the state's north overnight.

Details: The Dixie Fire, California's biggest blaze, razed houses and businesses as it ripped through the town of Greenville and surrounding areas in Plumas County Wednesday night. The rapidly spreading River Fire burned "multiple" homes as it tore through Placer and Nevada counties, KOVR notes.

Updated 1 hour ago - Sports

Olympics dashboard

Team USA's Ryan Crouser competing on Thursday in the men's Olympic shot put final in Tokyo, which he won. Photo: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

🥇: Ryan Crouser breaks his own Olympic shot put record to win gold for U.S.

🏐: U.S. Olympic beach volleyball duo one step away from realizing gold medal dream

🤼🏿‍♀️ "Making history": Mensah-Stock first Black woman to win Olympic wrestling gold

🛹: 2 teens and girl, 12, sweep board at women's park skateboarding

Go deeper: Full Axios coverage