Twitter and the Feds

Late Friday, the U.S. Justice Department issued a court order for the Twitter account records of Birgitta Jonsdottir (above), a member of Iceland’s Parliament and early friend of WikiLeaks. At first blush, this would seem to suggest that the Feds’ efforts to build a case against Assange, who was in court in London yesterday and ...

HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images
HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images
HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images

Late Friday, the U.S. Justice Department issued a court order for the Twitter account records of Birgitta Jonsdottir (above), a member of Iceland's Parliament and early friend of WikiLeaks. At first blush, this would seem to suggest that the Feds' efforts to build a case against Assange, who was in court in London yesterday and faces an extradition hearing next month, aren't going that well -- it's hard to envision an organization as tech-savvy as WikiLeaks conveying any sensitive information via Twitter direct messages -- and it drew protest from E.U. politicians yesterday. In any case, Twitter refused to comply -- or, in the words of Wired's Ryan Singel, "Twitter beta-tested a spine."

Twitter isn't talking about why it made the decision, and in the absence of a statement the speculation on tech blogs over the past few days seems to have mostly settled on the theory that the refusal was the work of Twitter general counsel Alexander Macgillivray, an early graduate of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and former Google lawyer known for championing privacy in the slippery legal environs of the Internet.

Late Friday, the U.S. Justice Department issued a court order for the Twitter account records of Birgitta Jonsdottir (above), a member of Iceland’s Parliament and early friend of WikiLeaks. At first blush, this would seem to suggest that the Feds’ efforts to build a case against Assange, who was in court in London yesterday and faces an extradition hearing next month, aren’t going that well — it’s hard to envision an organization as tech-savvy as WikiLeaks conveying any sensitive information via Twitter direct messages — and it drew protest from E.U. politicians yesterday. In any case, Twitter refused to comply — or, in the words of Wired‘s Ryan Singel, “Twitter beta-tested a spine.”

Twitter isn’t talking about why it made the decision, and in the absence of a statement the speculation on tech blogs over the past few days seems to have mostly settled on the theory that the refusal was the work of Twitter general counsel Alexander Macgillivray, an early graduate of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and former Google lawyer known for championing privacy in the slippery legal environs of the Internet.

Christopher Soghoian, a graduate student and consultant who has done exhaustive research on the subject of Internet companies’ data disclosures to government, explains that this is an extremely unusual response for a tech firm — they usually fold in a hurry when the government comes knocking — and why it matters:

Twitter has gone out of its way to fight for its users’ privacy. The company went to court, and was successful in asking the judge to unseal the order (something it is not required to do), and then promptly notified its users, so that they could seek to quash the order. Twitter could have quite easily complied with the order, and would have had zero legal liability for doing so. In fact, many other Internet companies routinely hand over their users’ data in response to government requests, and never take steps to either have the orders unsealed, or give their users notice and thus an opportunity to fight the order.

It’s also notable in light of Twitter’s past friendliness with the State Department, which famously prevailed upon the company to keep its servers up and running during Iran’s Green Revolution protests (a collaboration which Evgeny Morozov argues in the current issue of FP has proven problematic).

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.

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