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Twitter Sues United States over Surveillance Disclosures
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Twitter Sues United States over Surveillance Disclosures

Summary: Twitter has filed a lawsuit in federal court, seeking a ruling that will allow it to present the true scope of government surveillance to its users.

Twitter Inc. has filed a lawsuit against the United States, seeking the right to understand the scope of government surveillance on Twitter users.


On Tuesday, Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, citing that it was “unconstitutionally restricted by statutes that prohibit and even criminalize” the public disclosure of requests.

Twitter ultimately wants to publish a “full transparency” report, which will explain the type and number of national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court orders the government has sent Twitter.

Benjamin Lee, attorney for Twitter, stated, “It’s our belief that we are entitled under the 1st 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. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.” The complaint, which was filed in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, seeks for a court ruling that declares restrictions unconstitutional under the 1st Amendment.

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After whistleblower Edward Snowden informed the public that the National Security Agency digs through electronic communications between American citizens, the issue of government spying exploded across the country. Social media outlets such as Twitter, Google Inc., Facebook Inc., and more were subject to a crisis once users worried that their information was being observed by the government.

Steven Roosa, co-chair of the data privacy and security team with law firm Holland & Knight, said, “It makes people think twice about using your service because it’s government central. Companies feel an obligation to push back against the state surveillance machine.”

Last year, several tech firms sued the government, including Google. They argued that the 1st Amendment provided the right to disclose information about their “reluctant role” in government surveillance. The Obama administration stated some of its disclosure rules would be relaxed as part of a January settlement. The tech firms dismissed their lawsuits in response.

Attorney General Eric Holder and James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said that under the new rules, communications entities would be allowed to reveal “more information than ever before.”

Now, additional information about how many national security orders and requests were sent to communications providers, as well as the number of consumer accounts targeted under those requests, will be disclosed. The underlying legal authorities behind the requests will also be revealed.

Emily Pierce, Department of Justice spokeswoman, emphasized that the government agency was collaborating with tech firms to achieve more transparency. She stated, “Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies. There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information government requests while also protecting national security.” The department added that AT&T, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have revealed reports that contain excessive detail.

However, Twitter felt that compromises with the government would not solve the problem, and filed a complaint in federal court to obtain a ruling. Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said, “Twitter is concerned that the settlement from January really doesn’t give them the ability to give the public useful information. I think it’s pretty clear a judge will find this an unconstitutional restraint. I would be more than surprised if Twitter backed down.”

Some consumers feel that Twitter might have filed the lawsuit to boost its reputation. Sharon Vardi, the chief marketing officer of Securonix, which analyzes data to identify computer security threats, commented, “This is more of a PR play, a marketing play to show their customers they care about their privacy.”

Kevin Banktston, the policy director of the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, noted that if Twitter wins the suit, it will benefit all involved “regardless of what the data shows.” He explained, “If they are not making a lot of requests, that helps reassure users of Twitter because users’ trust has been shaken by the NSA revelations. If it shows broad or expansive use of a specific authority, that could spur change in law by Congress.”

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