Mike Isaac

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Buzzkill: As Twitter Trumpets New Transparency Report, Judge Deals Company a Blow

One step forward, two steps back. I’d call that a fairly accurate summary of Twitter’s crummy Monday.

The company issued its first Transparency Report, a summary of all requests the company has received for user information, for government requests to withhold content, as well as any DMCA takedown notices from copyright holders. It is the first such report from the company, with plans to update the information bi-annually. The reports will also contain information on whether or not Twitter has complied with requests.

“One of our goals is to grow Twitter in a way that makes us proud. This ideal informs many of our policies and guides us in making difficult decisions,” wrote Twitter legal policy manager Jeremy Kessel in a company blog post. “These policies help inform people, increase awareness and hold all involved parties — including ourselves — more accountable; the release of our first Transparency Report aims to further these ambitions.”

Notably, in the first public display of affection between Twitter and Google in longer than I can recall, Twitter gave Google a shout-out for being the inspiration behind the initiative, while Google appreciated the props, saying as much in a tweeted response.

In a comically bad display of timing, Monday was also the day Twitter was dealt a setback in an ongoing case involving a New York District Attorney’s office information request on one of the company’s users. It’s an embarrassing blow that stains what would have otherwise been a day of early celebration of July 4th, which as Twitter reminded us in its blog post is a date that “serves as an important reminder of the need to hold governments accountable.”

But in this case, New York County Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. is holding Twitter accountable, ruling over the weekend that Twitter must hand over a number of tweets sent by Twitter user Malcolm Harris 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 at the time.

“What you give to the public belongs to the public,” Sciarrino wrote in his ruling. “What you keep to yourself belongs only to you.” The judge went on to invoke U.S. forefathers Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, claiming they “would have loved to tweet their opinions as much as they loved to write for the newspapers of their day. … The Constitution gives you the right to post, but as numerous people have learned, there are still consequences for your public posts.”

Judge Sciarrino’s ruling was in response to Twitter’s original motion to quash the court’s request that the company hand over Harris’s tweets, at the time seen as a strong stance by Twitter on civil liberties. Twitter’s original defense contested that “content that Twitter users create and submit to Twitter are clearly a form of electronic communication that, accordingly, implicates First Amendment protections.”

Perhaps more importantly, the decision could set a troubling precedent for Twitter going forward. If Twitter’s broad user base can’t defend themselves against subpoenas for past Twitter activity, the onus to defend the site’s users is now put on Twitter. And with 140 million active users, that’s a heck of a lot of potential litigation. So Twitter’s original motion would have essentially put the defense back in Harris’s hands — it’s enlightened self-interest at its very core.

“We are disappointed in the judge’s decision and are considering our options,” a Twitter spokeswoman said in a statement. “Twitter’s Terms of Service have long made it absolutely clear that its users *own* their content. We continue to have a steadfast commitment to our users and their rights.”

In light of this statement, let’s pause for a minute to take note of something: According to the transparency report, Twitter complies with 63 percent of government requests for user information on average, while the company complies with 75 percent of those requests made in the United States.

A Twitter spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the seeming incongruency between the aforementioned company statement and the newly revealed statistics.

So now, Twitter is in something of a pickle. The company has to figure out just how committed it can be to its users while staying within the letter of the law, and at the same time not set a dangerous precedent for future cases with endless potential subpoenas for past tweets.

And if Twitter decides to cave, we’ll see it in complete, transparent detail.

Sorry Twitter — sometimes Mondays just suck.

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