Twitter Takes on Government Over National Security Requests

By Steve Anderson October 08, 2014

Issues of national security have taken center stage pretty much since the start of the new millennium, and with these issues comes a host of new troubles for individuals and businesses alike. One business, however, is looking to take up some of these issues itself. Twitter—the largest microblogging platform on Earth— has readied a cast against the United States government over national security requests and the impact they have on First Amendment principles.

Specifically, Twitter is suing over the idea that the restrictions that the Justice Department places on what the company—and those like it—can say about national security-related requests for user data is actually a violation of Twitter's First Amendment rights in support of free speech. This comes as something of a surprise, as five other companies recently reached a settlement with the United States government over the scope of disclosure, and such a settlement might have been seen to be sufficient. But Twitter seems to be ready to take the case farther still, reportedly seeking the ability to notify its user base in biannual transparency reports about just how much information the government's been asking for, a step the government seems less than enthusiastic in allowing.

Currently, firms are reportedly able to report numbers of requests, but only in “broad bands”, such as “from zero to 999”. Twitter, meanwhile, wants the ability to call a number a number, so to speak, and notify the user base that, if 438 requests were received, that 438 requests were received. For Twitter, this makes a note of sense, as Twitter receives comparatively few numbers of requests and as such, the “broad band” concept really doesn't work for Twitter. If Twitter receives no requests in a period, saying it got from zero to 999 requests really doesn't help users much, as there are so many inaccuracies without even being close to the actual number. Even one is, under certain conditions, infinitely larger than zero, so there's not even the “horseshoe effect” to work with. A difference between 337 and 338 requests is trivial. A difference between one and zero is fundamental.

It's actually easy here to see both sides of the issue. Twitter seems to believe it has a duty to inform its users when government intrusion is taking place, or even when no intrusion is taking place at all. This is good for Twitter's users, who'd really like to know if those short social media posts—or anything else for that matter—are being read. But by like token, if Twitter announces that no requests were received for user information in a month, those who would use social media as a means to disseminate potentially harmful information might get the idea that Twitter is an unwatched, unlocked window to slip in and put up the information in question. The government's obfuscation techniques—forcing sites to say things like “between zero and 999”--allows for sufficient doubt to be added that those who might use Twitter in such a fashion would likely reconsider such a move.

Only time will tell just how Twitter's move will impact the government's requests for data, but it's clear Twitter won't go down without a fight for its users. That's a comforting move, though it may only go so far in the end. It's good to see, however, that Twitter made the move at all.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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