Twitter Breaks Rank, Threatens to Fight NSA Gag Orders

The Justice Department’s deal with tech companies didn’t go far enough for Twitter.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: In this photo illustration, communications from Twitter are displayed on a mobile device announcing the company's initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Feb. 6, 2014, 9:03 a.m.

Twit­ter threatened to launch a leg­al battle with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Thursday over gag or­ders that pre­vent it from dis­clos­ing in­form­a­tion about sur­veil­lance of its users.

The state­ment puts Twit­ter at odds with oth­er tech­no­logy gi­ants in­clud­ing Google, Mi­crosoft, Ya­hoo, and Face­book, who all struck a deal with the gov­ern­ment last month to drop their law­suits in ex­change for looser secrecy rules.

“We think the gov­ern­ment’s re­stric­tion on our speech not only un­fairly im­pacts our users’ pri­vacy, but also vi­ol­ates our First Amend­ment right to free ex­pres­sion and open dis­cus­sion of gov­ern­ment af­fairs,” Jeremy Kes­sel, Twit­ter’s man­ager of glob­al leg­al policy, wrote in a blog post.

He said the com­pany has pressed the Justice De­part­ment for great­er trans­par­ency and is also “con­sid­er­ing leg­al op­tions we may have to seek to de­fend our First Amend­ment rights.”

Google, Mi­crosoft, Ya­hoo, and Face­book all sued the Justice De­part­ment last year, say­ing their rights were be­ing vi­ol­ated by leg­al or­ders bar­ring them from re­veal­ing stat­ist­ics about Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance of their users. The com­pan­ies all reg­u­larly re­port on po­lice re­quests for user data, but the U.S. gov­ern­ment severely re­stric­ted their abil­ity to dis­cuss na­tion­al se­cur­ity de­mands. Twit­ter, which is largely a pub­lic so­cial me­dia ser­vice, was not in­volved in the leg­al battle.

After sev­er­al months of ne­go­ti­ations, the tech com­pan­ies and the Justice De­part­ment reached an agree­ment last month. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion agreed to al­low the com­pan­ies to re­veal more in­form­a­tion than ever be­fore, but they were still lim­ited to dis­clos­ing the total num­ber of Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Let­ters with­in bands of 1,000. In ex­change, the com­pan­ies agreed to aban­don their law­suits, al­though they said they would con­tin­ue to push Con­gress for bet­ter trans­par­ency.

But Twit­ter said the ex­pan­ded dis­clos­ure rights aren’t enough.

“While this agree­ment is a step in the right dir­ec­tion, these ranges do not provide mean­ing­ful or suf­fi­cient trans­par­ency for the pub­lic, es­pe­cially for en­tit­ies that do not re­ceive a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of — or any — na­tion­al se­cur­ity re­quests,” Kes­sel said.

Twit­ter made the state­ment along with re­leas­ing its latest data on po­lice re­quests for in­form­a­tion. The com­pany re­vealed that it re­ceived 833 po­lice re­quests cov­er­ing 1,323 ac­counts in the United States in the second half of 2013. Twit­ter said it com­plied with 69 per­cent of the re­quests.

The com­pany chose not to dis­close na­tion­al se­cur­ity re­quests for data, sug­gest­ing that it re­ceived so few that identi­fy­ing a broad range would mis­lead the pub­lic.

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