Twitter sues US for right to disclose government requests

Twitter sues US for right to disclose government requests
Internet giant Twitter is suing the Department of Justice in hopes that the United States government will let the web company publish more details about requests made for user data.

The complaint, filed in federal court on Tuesday this week, asks the Justice Dept. for declaratory judgment because, according to Twitter's attorneys, the US government is restricting the San Francisco-based company's freedom of speech by forbidding the release of a more detailed transparency report.

Although Twitter has previously published accounts of how it handles requests made by law enforcement for information about its millions of users, restrictions imposed by the US government has prevented the company from being as forthcoming as it would like.

The catalyst for the complaint, the court document suggests, is a letter sent by the Justice Dept. to Twitter last month informing the company that a proposal it submitted concerning what could be contained in future transparency reports goes beyond what the government wants Twitter to reveal.

“We have carefully reviewed Twitter’s proposed transparency report and have concluded that information contained in the report is classified and cannot be publicly released,” the DOJ wrote Twitter in a Sept. 9 letter. “Twitter’s proposed transparency report seeks to publish data . . . in ways that would reveal classified details about [government surveillance] that go beyond what the government has permitted other companies to report,” Twitter's attorneys quote from the letter in this week's filing.

According to Twitter, the government's insistence that they stay silent about certain surveillance practices runs counter to the US Constitution.

“Twitter’s ability to respond to government statements about national security surveillance activities and to discuss the actual surveillance of Twitter users is being unconstitutionally restricted by statutes that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider’s disclosure of the number of national security letters (“NSLs”) and court orders issued pursuant to FISA that it has received, if any,” Twitter's attorneys write.

“These restrictions constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint and content-based restriction on, and government viewpoint discrimination against, Twitter’s right to speak about information of national and global public concern,” the complaint continues.

“Defendants have impermissibly infringed upon Twitter’s right to publish information contained in Twitter’s draft Transparency Report, and Twitter therefore seeks a declaration that Defendants have violated Twitter’s First Amendment rights. A case of actual controversy exists regarding Twitter’s right to engage in First Amendment protected speech following Defendants’ refusal to allow Twitter to publish information about its exposure to national security surveillance that does not conform to either of the two preapproved formats set forth in the DAG Letter.”

The “DAG Letter” refers to a memorandum from the US deputy attorney general, James Cole, sent to five other web companies last January informing them of what kind of information that can reveal to customers concerning requests from the government for user data.

“Twitter is entitled under the First Amendment to respond to its users’ concerns and to the statements of US government officials by providing more complete information about the limited scope of US government surveillance of Twitter user accounts—including what types of legal process have not been received by Twitter,” the complaint continues.

Twitter's attorneys filed the complaint in the Northern District of California on Tuesday and name Attorney General Eric Holder, the DOJ, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey and the FBI at large as defendants.