Twitter Sues Justice Department to Release Government Demands for User Data

Carey Wedler
October 7, 2014

(TheAntiMedia) SAN FRANCISCO, CA- On Tuesday, social media giant Twitter sued the United States Justice Department in a federal court in the Northern District of California. The suit demands that Twitter be allowed to release exact information on compulsory government requests for user data. Image credit: Svartling/

twitterThe company follows in the steps of tech leaders like Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Yahoo, and Microsoft, who earlier this year won a modest victory when the government agreed to let them share broad number ranges (such as 1,000 or 2,000) of data subpoenas. However, Twitter goes further than any other company by demanding they be allowed to release exact numbers. It cites the First Amendment of the Constitution as its grounds for its case.

Twitter Vice-President, Ben Lee, said in a blog post:

“It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance — including what types of legal process have not been received.”

The Washington Post reported in January that after Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Microsoft and Google moved to sue for more transparency the Justice Department

“tried to find a reasonable middle ground that allowed a greater level of disclosure while shielding the government’s ability to protect national security.”

The company’s charges were subsequently dropped.

Earlier this year, Twitter attempted to work with the government to determine what it could release in its twice-yearly transparency reports. In April, the company’s lawyer, Michael A. Sussmann, sent the government a draft of its July transparency report. By September, James A. Baker, General Counsel for the FBI, rejected it, saying the information it contained was classified.

This led Twitter to move beyond its attempts to reach an out-of-court agreement and move toward today’s lawsuit. In the company’s 19-page complaint, it alleges the government’s gag order on responding to data requests or expressing the company’s position

“forces Twitter either to engage in speech that has been preapproved by government officials or else to refrain from speaking altogether.”

This week, the Ninth Circuit court, also in the Northern District of California, plans to consider the constitutionality of the government’s gag order on national security lettersthe name for subpoenas for data submitted by the government.

Tech companies of all kinds appear to be pushing back against government surveillance (pursuant to customer demand).  Yahoo sued as early as 2008 to prevent collection of data and was threatened with exorbitant fines before losing its case. To the dismay of authorities, Apple and Android recently announced new encryption to block government spying.

Twitter, which with others formed a coalition for Global Government Surveillance Reform, made clear its lawsuit is part of an overall attempt to create better privacy policy. The group, which includes Twitter, AOL, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Dropbox establishes several principles:

It demands “limiting government’s authority to collect user’s information,” “oversight and accountability,” “transparency about government demands,” “respecting the free flow of information,” and “avoiding conflicts among governments.”

Whether or not these tech giants are acting out of principle or in response to customer demand (and whether or not their actions go far enough), it signals a step in the right direction toward retaliating against invasive, illegal government surveillance.

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