Judge orders Twitter to hand over user data

On the same day that a New York judge ordered Twitter to hand over the tweets of Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris, Twitter launches its new Transparency Report.

Malcolm Harris is one of around 700 protesters arrested on Brooklyn Bridge. At the time the bridge was off-limits to the protest; but many of the protesters claimed that the police ‘enticed’ them onto the bridge before arresting them. In Harris’ case, prosecutors sought his tweets using a 2703 order – which allows the collection of data without a search warrant. The argument was that these would allow them to refute an expected defense that the police either led or escorted him onto the bridge.

Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. has now ruled, “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. There is no proprietary interest in your tweets, which you have now gifted to the world.”

This is the second time that Judge Sciarrino has ruled against Harris. Harris had moved to quash a subpoena on Twitter demanding his tweets, but in April the Judge denied the motion, saying he had no standing in the case between the prosecutors and Twitter. Twitter then stepped in and also demanded that the subpoena be quashed since the organization’s terms and conditions make it clear that tweets still belong to the tweeter, and to hand them over would be a violation of his privacy rights. It is this last argument that has now been rejected by the Judge. 

Tweets are “not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the internet that now exist,” he ruled. “Those private dialogues would require a warrant based on probable cause in order to access the relevant information,” he concluded, allowing the greater part of the prosecutors’ 2703 order to stand. 

The ACLU, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Twitter, remains convinced that the Judge has got it wrong. “What is surprising is that the court continued to fail to grapple with one of the key issues underlying this case: do individuals give up their ability to go to court to try to protect their free speech and privacy rights when they use the Internet? As we explained in our brief, the answer has to be no,” it declared in a statement issued yesterday.

Meanwhile, Twitter has launched its own Transparency Report, similar to the reports that Google produces. It shows which countries have demanded user information, which countries have requested content removal, and the extent of copyright takedown notices received in the first six months of 2012. The United States is by far the most active in demanding user information, having issued 679 of the total of 849 requests. Japan comes in second with 98 requests, and the UK is third with 11 requests. The report shows that Twitter has complied, either partly or completely, in 63% of cases.

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