Twitter Sues U.S. Gov't to Loosen Transparency Report Rules

Twitter says its First Amendment rights are being violated by U.S. government restrictions about what it can divulge publicly about surveillance requests.

Twitter sues U.S. government

Twitter has filed a lawsuit against the United States government alleging that restrictions on the details it can release about federal surveillance requests for some of its account holders are unconstitutional.

Instead of having such restrictions, Twitter argues in its 19-page lawsuit, the social media company wants to provide more details to the public about the kinds of government surveillance requests it receives as part of its efforts to be open and transparent about its actions.

"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," wrote Ben Lee, vice president of Twitter's legal services, in an Oct. 7 post on the Twitter Blog. "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."

Instead, Twitter argues in its lawsuit that the company is "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," Lee wrote. "We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges."

Twitter's lawsuit, which was filed in United States District Court in the Northern District of California, asks the government to allow the company to publish its full Transparency Report and to "declare these restrictions on our ability to speak about government surveillance as unconstitutional under the First Amendment," wrote Lee. "The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is already considering the constitutionality of the non-disclosure provisions of the NSL law later this week."

Named as defendants in Twitter's lawsuit are U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; the U.S. Department of Justice; James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; and the FBI.

"We've tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail," wrote Lee. "In April, we provided a draft Transparency Report addendum to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a report which we hoped would provide meaningful transparency for our users. After many months of discussions, we were unable to convince them to allow us to publish even a redacted version of the report."

The broad topic of government surveillance and data privacy concerns has become much more public in light of allegations made in 2013 about government snooping in Google and Yahoo data centers. Those revelations from U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden allegedly included government scanning and surveillance of personal message data, which set off a firestorm of protests by privacy groups, officials, and the public.

Transparency reports by companies such as Twitter, Google and Facebook detail general statistics about the numbers and kinds of government surveillance requests that are received about account holders.

Twitter is certainly not the only technology company that is upset with the existing rules.

In December 2013, AOL, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo joined together to create a coalition to demand government surveillance reform, according to an earlier eWEEK report. The group was formed after repeated allegations and reports emerged in 2013 about the online surveillance activities of the NSA.