When Merrill first received an NSL asking him to provide private information about a user in 2004, he noticed that the Bureau had skipped the judicial system entirely. Instead of complying with the demand, he decided to challenge the gag order. In his anonymous op-ed for The Washington Post a few years after, he recounted the decision: "I recognize that there may sometimes be a need for secrecy in certain national security investigations. But I've now been under a broad gag order for three years, and other NSL recipients have been silenced for even longer. At some point -- a point we passed long ago -- the secrecy itself becomes a threat to our democracy."
Merrill brought the information to lawyers at the ACLU and the resulting lawsuit, which challenged the constitutionality of the statute and lasted for about six years, became a catalyst for changes to the law. But despite the significance of the lawsuit, a Yale Law School report points out that the actual gag order remained unaffected.
For over a decade, Merrill and thousands of other NSL recipients like him were unable to share the extent of the FBI's surveillance in the digital space. But the ruling has made it possible for Merrill to openly talk about the specific categories of information that the FBI looked into, specifically the "electronic communication transactional records" that were never clearly defined in the NSL statute. The court's decision "vindicates the public's right to know how the FBI uses warrantless surveillance to peer into our digital lives," Merrill said in a press release. "I hope today's victory will finally allow Americans to engage in an informed debate about the proper scope of the government's warrantless surveillance powers."