Twitter sues feds in effort to reveal how many times the government attempts to spy on you each year


It appears that Twitter — of all the tech companies with whom millions of Americans interact daily — is again one of the only among the giants to actually make good on their promise to protect user data, even if it’s just by being transparent about what they’re being asked to share.

Twitter is suing the United States government, claiming its First Amendment rights are being violated. The case, filed Tuesday in the Northern District Court of California against both the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, concerns the number of National Security Letters (NSLs) Twitter receives from the feds every year. These NSLs demand that Twitter hand over user information.

The gist of the case is that Twitter wants to include the exact number of requests it receives every year in its annual transparency reports. But right now, it is not allowed to. Thanks to the way current non-disclosure provisions are set up, Twitter is prohibited from sharing exactly how many NSLs it receives every year. Service providers like Twitter, Google, and Facebook can only provide a rough range or a percentage increase.

This isn’t the first time that tech companies have filed suit on this issue, of course, with Google and Facebook among others waving fists earlier in 2014 that were, perhaps a little too easily, met with compromises until the suit was eventually dropped. Twitter was conspicuously absent during that pushback.

“Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies,” Pierce said. “There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information government requests while also protecting national security.”

The Justice Department noted that AT&T, Microsoft, Google and Facebook have released transparency reports that contain reporting in unprecedented detail.

Twitter appears to think such compromises aren’t good enough, and took its case to court to get a ruling fully in its favor.

“Twitter is concerned the settlement from January really doesn’t give them the ability to give the public useful information,” said Nate Cardozo, staff attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I think it’s pretty clear a judge will find this an unconstitutional restraint. I would be more than surprised if Twitter backed down.”

There are those who believe Twitter is simply pushing an issue that has already been addressed as a PR move to prove good faith to their users. But recall last year, around the time the name Edward Snowden began to pop up in the news, Twitter was the one company that apparently expressed reservations about helping the government backdoor spy on users:

When government officials came to Silicon Valley to demand easier ways for the world’s largest Internet companies to turn over user data as part of a secret surveillance program, the companies bristled. In the end, though, many cooperated at least a bit.

…While handing over data in response to a legitimate FISA request is a legal requirement, making it easier for the government to get the information is not, which is why Twitter could decline to do so.

Twitter declined to make it easier for the government. But other companies were more compliant, according to people briefed on the negotiations……The companies that negotiated with the government include Google, which owns YouTube; Microsoft, which owns Hotmail and Skype; Yahoo; Facebook; AOL; Apple; and Paltalk, according to one of the people briefed on the discussions. The companies were legally required to share the data under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. People briefed on the discussions spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited by law from discussing the content of FISA requests or even acknowledging their existence. …

For their part, Twitter posted this on their official blog, including a link to the suit itself:

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. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.

So, today, we have filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking to publish our full Transparency Report, and asking the court to declare these restrictions on our ability to speak about government surveillance as unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is already considering the constitutionality of the non-disclosure provisions of the NSL law later this week.

You can read our filing with the U.S. District Court of Northern California in PDF form here.

The important piece of this story, besides the nod to a First Amendment right to free speech (granted to corporations via the Citizens United ruling, as much as some may hate to admit it), is that Twitter is arguing that they should be allowed to inform users just what the government is NOT asking for in their surveillance efforts.

Why is this important? Because if the federal government is searching out data on information that has nothing to do with, say, Islamofascism, then what, exactly, are they after?

Coming as it does on the heels of the usual Google self-serving press conference (but remember, Google was one of the companies that helped the Feds back a year or so ago) on just how concerned they are about this issue of government spying, Twitter’s effort to protect user data will likely get lost in Google’s song of itself. But rest assured — Twitter, at least for now, seems to be on the side of true transparency and free speech. The squeaky wheels like Google might get the government grease, but often it’s the relative quiet of the parts that are running smoothly that lets a user know they can trust the system.

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