Freedom to tweet: Twitter sues US government over surveillance laws

8 Oct 2014

Twitter is suing the US government, alleging it has been restricted by security and surveillance laws it believes are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

In its transparency report in July, microblogging site Twitter described how it was being prohibited from reporting on the actual scope of surveillance of Twitter users by the US government.

“Our ability to speak has been restricted by laws that prohibit and even criminalise 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,” Twitter’s legal counsel Ben Lee said in a statement.

Twitter said it believes it is entitled under the US First Amendment to provide users with information about the scope of US government surveillance.

“We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.”

Call for reform

Twitter has filed a lawsuit in the US District Court of Northern California, asking the court to declare the restrictions placed on Twitter to be unconstitutional.

“We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail. In April, we provided a draft Transparency Report addendum to the US 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,” Lee said.

Twitter, he said, is seeking a comprehensive reform of government surveillance powers in the US and backs the USA Freedom Act of 2014 introduced by Democrat Senator Patrick Leahy.

This, he said, would allow companies such as Twitter to provide more transparency to its users.

Social surveillance image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years