Twitter Tries to Quash Subpoena for Occupy Protester's Data

 
 
By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2012-05-10
 
 
 

Twitter has thumbed its nose at a court order seeking data about an alleged Occupy Wall Street protestor.

The order seeks to force the handover of data about Malcolm Harris, as well as his tweets. In a motion filed on Monday in New York state court, Twitter sought to quash the subpoena.

Harris is being prosecuted by the District Attorney's Office in Manhattan on charges of disorderly conduct on the Brooklyn Bridge last year.

The subpoena in question is known as a 2703 order. It allows prosecutors to get their hands on some types of a user€™s data under the Stored Communications Act (SCA). The SCA addresses voluntary and compelled disclosure of "stored wire and electronic communications and transactional records" held by third-party ISPs.

Twitter's bold stance in resisting the subpoena stands out from its meeker brethren, such as Google. Twitter has, on multiple occasions, proactively informed users about requests to access their information.

One example was in January 2011, when Twitter successfully fought a gag order that would have prevented it from telling five WikiLeaks supporters that government was after their data. Again, earlier this year, Twitter notified Harris that the D.A.'s office was coming after his Twitter data. Harris unsuccessfully fought the order, losing on the grounds that he himself didn't have the information in question€”Twitter did. (Here's a PDF of the court order).

In contrast, Google in 2009 began to reveal the number of requests made for data by the U.S. government. In six months, from January to June 2011, Google reported receiving 5,950 requests from U.S. authorities, including search warrants, subpoenas and more. It went along with 93 percent of those requests. Recent numbers show that Google received 29% more user data requests in the U.S. than in its previous reporting period.

Law enforcement is obviously growing increasingly emboldened in its attempts to seize information about what people do on the Internet. And with the type of success rate they're seeing based on Google's Transparency Reports, civil rights advocates such as the ACLU are looking to the Harris case as being important to the fight for online privacy.

The ACLU calls this particular case "a big deal," given that Internet companies such as Twitter are often our last hope for being informed when requests for our information are being made.

"Law enforcement agencies€”both the federal government and state and city entities€”are becoming increasingly aggressive in their attempts to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet," writes ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Aden Fine. "And while the individual Internet users can try to defend their rights in the rare circumstances in which they find out about the requests before their information is turned over, that may not be enough. €¦ If Internet users cannot protect their own constitutional rights, the only hope is that Internet companies do so."

The D.A.'s office wants a slew of information from Twitter, in particular material that will refute Harris's claim that police coaxed him onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

When denying Harris€™s motion to block the subpoena of his Twitter information, prosecutors said that €œthe information sought by the subpoena is needed to refute the defendant€™s anticipated defense, that the police either led or escorted the defendant into stepping onto the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge.€

The D.A.'s office is also after "any and all user information, including email address, as well as any and all tweets posted" to his account, @destructuremal, between Sept. 15, 2011 (two days before the Occupy Wall Street movement began), and Dec. 15, 2011, according to Reuters.

That means that the subpoena covers deleted tweets. Harris has deleted all public tweets before February, telling Gawker that he had no idea what the prosecutors were looking for.

"I have no idea what they're looking for. Zero idea," Harris told Gawker. "It's [expletive] Twitter. I don't commit crimes on Twitter."

Harris went on to tweet in March that this action constitutes "the legal equivalent of busting a party with loud noise and demanding my phone records for 3.5 months to see if I helped plan it."

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