Twitter: We’re still the free-speech wing of the free-speech party

As various levels of government both in the U.S. and around the world have stepped up their attempts to track down dissidents through social networks, the pressure has intensified on companies like Twitter and Facebook to comply with these demands — even at the expense of their users’ privacy. Despite that pressure, Twitter at least seems determined to fight these incursions wherever possible. As a case in point, the company has filed a motion in New York state court to quash a court order compelling it to hand over information about a user involved in the Occupy Wall Street protests, arguing that the order violates that individual’s rights.

The case in question involves a protester by the name of Malcolm Harris, whose Twitter handle was @destructuremal, and who was involved in a protest against Wall Street financial mismanagement in October of 2011 that saw more than 700 people arrested for a variety of charges, including destruction of public property and resisting arrest. Earlier this year, the New York district attorney’s office sent Twitter a subpoena for information relating to Harris’ use of the network during the protest — including personal details about him, and also specific messages that he sent.

Judge ruled that users do not own their tweets

As my PaidContent colleague Jeff John Roberts reported last month, Harris’ attempt to have this court order struck down failed for a somewhat unusual reason: namely, the judge hearing the case decided that Harris did not have any legal interest in the tweets he sent, because such rights only apply to things a user actually owns — and users do not own their tweets for the purposes of the U.S. Constitution. According to the judge:

While the Fourth Amendment provides protection for our physical homes, we do not have a physical “home” on the Internet… some of our most private information is sent to third parties and held far away on remote network servers.

Now Twitter has stepped in to try and force the court to quash the order, as reported first by the American Civil Liberties Union blog. According to Twitter’s motion (embedded below) the judge’s decision that Harris doesn’t own his tweets contradicts both Twitter’s terms of use — which specifically state that a users “retain [their] rights to any Content [they] submit, post or display on or through” the service — as well as the federal Stored Communications Act, which the Twitter motion says “expressly permits users to challenge demands for their account records.”

Twitter seems to be stepping up its opposition to these kinds of cases: in an earlier case related to the Boston version of the Occupy protests, Twitter handed over a user’s data to Boston police after they submitted a court order alleging that the user in question — who went by the names @@pOisAnON and Guido Fawkes — was involved in a hacking attempt on the police department. But the company said that it only handed over the minimum amount of information required by the police investigation.

Twitter says it remains committed to users’ rights

And while the company ultimately gave this user data to the Boston police, it defied a request not to make the police department’s court order public, something it has also done in the past in more serious cases, such as the Justice Department’s attempts to get details about the Twitter activity of WikiLeaks supporters such as Jacob Appelbaum and Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir. In that case, Twitter fought for the right to tell users that authorities were seeking the information — unlike a number of other companies who likely also got similar requests — although the company was eventually ordered to provide the data.

As it has evolved from being just a social toy into a real-time information network used by “Arab Spring” dissidents in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, Twitter has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to free speech by its users — both in blog posts about how the “tweets must flow” despite attempts by governments to stop them, and in comments by CEO Dick Costolo and general counsel Alex Macgillivray that the company is the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

That commitment was questioned by some when the company announced late last year that it had developed the capacity to selectively censor content from the network within specific countries, but Twitter stressed that it would only do this if required by law, and that it would publicize these requests at the Chilling Effects website. The latest moves in the Harris case suggest that Twitter plans to continue fighting for the rights of its users, and also that it intends to make these battles as public as possible. And Harris, who now tweets under the name @BigMeanInternet, seems pretty thankful.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hank Ashby and Petteri Sulonen