Twitter Is Suing The U.S. Over Free Speech (Its Own)

October 11, 2014

Twitter filed a lawsuit against the federal government this week over First Amendment rights, marking the latest round in a battle between tech companies and the government over how much they can reveal about government requests for their user information.

This debate began when Edward Snowden revealed information about the PRISM program, which suggested that the government was asking tech companies for private user information. Tech companies can report the number of requests they receive in broad terms. Twitter hopes to put users at ease by giving them more detail about the requests, but the government is keeping them quiet.

Here are some questions we thought you might be asking:

What kinds of requests is Twitter is being told it can’t talk about?

These are requests that basically could be related to people who the government thinks might be connected to, for example, terrorism. The government sends notices to a company like Twitter saying, “We want information about this individual or this group, and because it’s a matter of national security, you can’t even tell anyone we asked.” In its lawsuit, Twitter is saying that it has a First Amendment right to reveal that the government is asking it for information.

What is the government saying?

The government says that this is a matter of national security and revealing any information at all could actually jeopardize the investigation.

Why is Twitter taking up this fight?

Twitter and other tech companies were really put on the spot when Edward Snowden leaked information about the so-called PRISM program, which suggested there was wide government surveillance of user information that was stored with tech companies. For a company like Twitter, Google, Microsoft or any of these big players, it left them in this position of not being able to deny or confirm how much information they had given to the government. This made their customers uneasy. So they basically have said to the government that they want to be able to say something, and they’ve been fighting with the government for at least some degree of transparency.

So they can’t say anything at this point?

Well, some of the other companies also went to court against the government — Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple and Google. They ended up settling with the government, and the government agreed that these companies could give very general numbers. So all of these companies release what they call “transparency reports.” On these reports you can say things like you got zero to 999 requests or 1,000 to 1,999 requests. Twitter doesn’t want to settle with that very vague number.

What does Twitter want then?

In the case of Twitter, their posts are public, they don’t actually get that many requests that are related to national security, so they want to make that clear to users. In April, Twitter sent the government a draft copy of its July transparency report asking if it could be reviewed for publication. They were told they couldn’t publish it. Twitter is saying this is what we call “prior restraint,” it’s a gag order under our First Amendment. Before we even speak, our First Amendment is violated. So they are asking now in court to be able to say more.

And Twitter’s chance of victory?

In a blog post this week, Twitter said this was part of a wider effort. Right now, there is a bill in Congress called the USA Freedom Act, championed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The bill would put some restrictions on the ability of security agencies to make these requests. I don’t know how much chance it has of being passed given it’s hard to pass anything in Congress right now, but clearly it’s a multi-pronged effort, and I think that’s why they brought this up right now.

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