A federal judge has denied a request that would have temporarily blocked Twitter from turning over account data to United States prosecutors investigating the whistleblower site WikiLeaks and its publication of classified government documents. The request sought to prevent the transfer while a federal appeals court was considering the case.
U.S. District Court Judge Liam O'Grady denied the request because he felt the appeal has little chance of success since the law "overwhelmingly" supported the government's case. "Litigation of these issues has already denied the government lawful access to potential evidence for more than a year," O'Grady said in his ruling.
In connection with its grand jury investigation into the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange, the Department of Justice issued a "secret" order last year to Twitter demanding account information belonging to Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament; Rop Gonggijp, a Dutch activist; and Jacob Appelbaum, a computer security researcher who supports WikiLeaks. The three were named because they had supported WikiLeaks publicly on Twitter in the past.
The order demanded information such as subscriber names, contact information, billing records, user activity such as when the user connected and for how long, IP addresses and email addresses. The order also included a "gag," which prevented Twitter from notifying the implicated users about the request for information.
Twitter fought the original order in court and won the right to inform Jonsdottir, Gonggjip and Appelbaum about the government order. However, a federal judge in Virginia ruled in March last year that Twitter still had to hand over account details to the government. Judge Theresa Buchanan, in the Eastern District of Virginia, ruled that because the government was not seeking the content of the Twitter accounts, the subjects could not challenge the government's request for the records.
Governments should be required to meet a high standard before demanding private information about users from online services, Cindy Cohn, legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy and legal organization, said at the time.
"The court is telling all users of online tools hosted in the U.S. that the U.S. government will have secret access to their data," said Jonsdottir in a statement.
Data posted on social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are increasingly being used as evidence in court, and judges have upheld previous requests for user data from various companies.
The government successfully obtained Appelbaum's account data from Google and Internet service provider Sonic.net in November. Google was directed to hand over the IP address Appelbaum used to log into his Gmail account as well as the email and IP addresses of anyone he communicated with going back to Nov. 1, 2009. The Sonic order sought the same type of information, including the email addresses of people with whom Appelbaum communicated but not the contents.
EFF is also concerned about the increasing pressure on Twitter to shut down user accounts from the micro-blogging site. EFF cited a recent article in The New York Times in which anonymous United States officials claimed they "may have the legal authority to demand" that Twitter shut down an account associated with a militant Somali group, requests from Sen. Joseph Lieberman to remove accounts allegedly run by the Taliban, and the threat of a lawsuit from an Israeli law firm over accounts supposedly affiliated with Hezbollah.
"If the U.S. were to pressure Twitter to censor tweets by organizations it opposes, even those on the terrorist lists, it would join the ranks of countries like India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Syria, Uzbekistan, all of which have censored online speech in the name of 'national security,'" Jillian C. York, director for international freedom of expression at the EFF, and Trevor Timm, an EFF activist, wrote Jan. 6 on the EFF's Deeplinks blog.
Shutting down activity on a "neutral communications service" like Twitter would set a dangerous precedent, "like criminalizing pens and pencils or typewriters and computers based on what people choose to say when using them," York and Timm wrote.