Twitter sues US government over restrictions on revealing surveillance requests

Twitter yesterday filed a suit against the US Department of Justice over restrictions on its ability to release detailed information on government surveillance requests,

As part of our latest transparency report released in July, we described how we were being prohibited from reporting on the actual scope of surveillance of Twitter users by the U.S. government. 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 national security letters (“NSLs”) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) court orders received — even if that number is zero.

Like all US technology companies, Twitter can only disclose the number of information requests made by government agencies in very rough figures (0-250, 251-50, etc.), something that Twitter argues runs counter to the US constitution,

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.

Twitter’s transparency figures from July show it received 2,058 requests for information over the previous six months from governments around the world. This amounts to a 46 percent increase worldwide, with over 60 percent of requests coming from the US government.

Twitter governmnet data requests July 2014

It appears from the court filing (.pdf) that the complaint was sparked when the Justice Department and FBI informed Twitter last month that a proposal it submitted concerning information to include in future transparency reports was considered unacceptable,

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, for its part, argues that it should be able to provide the level of information its customers demand,

We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer applauded Twitter’s actions, arguing that,

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.

Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. You can now follow me on Twitter - @douglasjcrawf.

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