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Twitter takes U.S. to court over government transparency

The company says its free speech rights are being violated.


Dell Cameron


Posted on Oct 7, 2014   Updated on May 30, 2021, 11:05 am CDT

Twitter is ramping up its fight for greater government transparency.

In a meeting last January with the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ), Twitter sought meaningful transparency concerning the steady increase of U.S. government requests for user data, made under the auspice of national security. Unsatisfied with the restrictions placed on disclosing such information to the public, the microblogging company is now taking the federal government to court.

Following a Silicon Valley protest for National Security Agency (NSA) reform earlier this year, the U.S. government and five top technology companies—Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and LinkedIn—made a deal to broaden the scope of authorized disclosures about customer information turned over to the U.S. government. Twitter has continued to express its concern, however, over the limitations placed on these disclosures.

Currently, user data requested by the government through national security letters (NSL) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) orders can only be reported in increments of 1,000. Unlike warrants, NSLs allow the government to demand information from companies or individuals without the approval of a judge.

Twitter and other Web companies are also prohibited from reporting what kinds of national security requests they have not received.

“As previously noted, we think it is essential for companies to be able to disclose numbers of national security requests of all kinds—including national security letters and different types of FISA court orders—separately from reporting on all other requests,” Twitter said in a February press release. “For the disclosure of national security requests to be meaningful to our users, it must be within a range that provides sufficient precision to be meaningful.”

Today we’re taking legal action to provide more #transparency to our users about requests from the US government.

— Twitter (@twitter) October 7, 2014

Twitter’s lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, specifically accuses the DOJ and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of placing prohibitions on its speech, in violation of the First Amendment. The lawsuit follows a letter to the company last month from FBI General Counsel James A. Baker that rejected a draft of a Twitter transparency report on the basis that it contained classified information.

“The aggregation of FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] numbers, the requirement to report in bands, and the prohibition on breaking out the numbers by type of authority are important ways the framework mitigates the risks to sources and methods posed by disclosing FISA statistics,” Baker’s letter said.

In a statement Tuesday, Twitter said that it is asking the court to declare these restrictions as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The company noted that oral arguments are being heard on Wednesday by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the non-disclosure provisions of the NSL law, under fire in a lawsuit brought forward by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

“[W]e continue to look for comprehensive reform of government surveillance powers in the U.S.,” wrote Twitter in its press release, “and we support meaningful efforts such as the USA Freedom Act of 2014 as introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which would allow companies like Twitter to provide more transparency to its users.” 

Photo via Howard Lake/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Oct 7, 2014, 6:19 pm CDT