Tweet Free or Die: In Defense of Occupy Protester, Twitter Fights the Man
Taking a bold stance on the privacy rights of its users, Twitter on Tuesday filed a motion to quash a New York State court ruling that would require the company to hand over information on one of its users, Malcolm Harris, in connection with an ongoing investigation.
“As we said in our brief, ‘Twitter’s Terms of Service make absolutely clear that its users own their content,’” Twitter legal counsel Ben Lee said in a statement provided to AllThingsD. “Our filing with the court reaffirms our steadfast commitment to defending those rights for our users.”
Twitter’s filing comes after Harris’s initial motion to quash was struck down in court. The court found that Harris lacked the legal standing to challenge the request for Twitter information on his own behalf.
Harris, a senior editor at online publication The New Inquiry, was arrested in conjunction with a massive Occupy Wall Street protest last October that blocked the Brooklyn Bridge. He was one of more than 700 people arrested.
In Harris’s defense, Twitter cites the First Amendment as grounds for support, contesting that “content that Twitter users create and submit to Twitter are clearly a form of electronic communication that, accordingly, implicates First Amendment protections.” Twitter also contends that the request is a Fourth Amendment violation (unlawful search and seizure, for those of you who skipped PoliSci 101).
The reasoning behind Twitter’s motion most likely boils down to two things: First, if Twitter users as a whole don’t have sufficient standing to defend themselves against subpoenas for information, it then becomes Twitter’s responsibility to do so. With a subscriber base of more than 140 million active users, that’s a lot of litigation to sort through. It’s simply a scaleability issue. So, on the one hand, Twitter filing a motion that would essentially put the defense back in Harris’s hands is essentially Twitter practicing enlightened self-interest.
But in another, more gallant way of viewing the case, the motion signals just how strong Twitter is on the right to privacy of its user base. Aside from safeguarding against a future of similar requests, Twitter doesn’t have to stick up for its users like this.
“In Internet meme parlance, Twitter is basically telling the government: ‘Come at me bro,’” privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian told AllThingsD in an interview.
And it’s not the first time Twitter has stood up to the government. Late last year, Twitter challenged a court order requesting information on a number of people involved with WikiLeaks, including Julian Assange. Specifically, Twitter challenged a “gag order” included in the request, which specifically barred the company from telling WikiLeaks members that the government was requesting their account information. By challenging the order, Twitter effectively let these account holders know that the government was going after their information, which allowed them in turn to defend themselves against the government requests.
This may not sound like much. But most of this litigation is dealt with by outside counsel which Twitter hired specifically to deal with these cases, and that isn’t cheap. And there’s no direct financial incentive for the company to stand up against a request for information such as this one.
In all, it’s a bold move by the microblogging company, and one it isn’t required to make.