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A Philadelphia court has made the unfortunate decision to reopen the legal debate on whether the U.S. has the right to access e-mails stored on foreign servers if they belong to U.S. companies. If Magistrate Thomas Rueter’s ruling stands, anyone using U.S.-based internet companies will have to live with the knowledge that, as far as the U.S. government is concerned, it’s America wherever they operate.

That’s a dangerous approach that hurts the international expansion of U.S. tech companies. Privacy-minded customers in Europe are already suspicious of the U.S. government’s cooperation with the tech giants, revealed by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden. Nationalist politicians in some countries — for example, Marine Le Pen of the French National Front — want to ban cross-border personal data transfers, arguing that such data must be stored on servers inside the internet user’s country. That, however, does not appear to guarantee that the U.S. won’t get at it, either.

Last July, Microsoft won a landmark case against the U.S. government, in which it argued it didn’t have to hand over e-mails stored on a server in Dublin to investigators working on a drug case. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit agreed with the corporation, ruling that the U.S. Congress never meant the Stored Communications Act to apply extraterritorially. Just two weeks ago, the court allowed the ruling to stand. The government may yet appeal it to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime, U.S. internet companies have assumed that if communications are stored abroad, they are out of the U.S. authorities’ reach.

Acting on that understanding, Google refused to disclose two users’ data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the FBI went to court in Philadelphia. Unlike Microsoft, Google doesn’t even know the physical location of a file: its artificial intelligence-based system constantly optimizes storage, so bits of one file can be stored in several geographic locations at once.

Judge Rueter refused to be bound by the Microsoft precedent. In his ruling, he disagreed with it, arguing that as long as an American Google employee gets the data using a computer located in the U.S., nothing extraterritorial is taking place: “When Google produces the electronic data in accordance with the search warrants and the Government views it, the actual invasion of the account holders’ privacy — the searches — will occur in the United States.”

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