On Tuesday morning, Twitter tweeted, “Today we’re taking legal action to provide more #transparency to our users about requests from the US government.” The tweet included a link to a post on Twitter’s blog written by Benjamin Lee, the tech company’s lawyer.
— Twitter (@twitter) October 7, 2014
Everything that Twitter has been hinting at since February has finally hit the fan: the company filed a lawsuit to fight the restrictions the US government places on the type of information Twitter can publish about national security-related surveillance requests. The argument is that such restrictions violate Twitter’s First Amendment rights.
According to a deal the US Department of Justice struck with Twitter and other tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo and LinkedIn, these companies are only allowed to publish vague information about the data requests they receive in regards to national security. For example, if Twitter receives 500 National Security Letters (NSLs) or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders, the company is only at liberty to publish that they received 0 to 999 requests.
“Our ability to speak has been restricted by laws that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider like us from disclosing the exact number of [data requests] received — even if that number is zero,” complained Lee in the blog post. “We should be free to…respond to our users’ concerns and…[provide] information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance…in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.”
The lawsuit is Twitter’s last ditch effort to achieve a higher level of transparency with its users after months of failed negotiations to make it happen without going to court. Twitter’s actions follow immediately after the drama regarding NSA secret surveillance program leaks, which accused tech companies of collaborating with a spying agency. At first, these tech companies fought back, outright denying collaboration, but now it has gone further to include permission for greater transparency with users.
In a statement regarding Twitter’s lawsuit against the US government, Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, had this to say: “Twitter is doing the right thing by challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders. The Constitution doesn’t permit the government to impose so broad a prohibition on the publication of truthful speech about government conduct. We hope that other technology companies will now follow Twitter’s lead.”