Twitter was ordered by the U.S. District Court of Eastern Virginia on Thursday to hand over account information about three users to the Justice Department, which had late last year requested the information without a warrant as part of its investigation into the classified U.S. military and State Department information that was obtained and published by Wikileaks.
In his 60-page opinion, Judge Liam O’Grady said that the three individuals whose information was sought — Jacob Appelbaum, a hacker and computer expert employed by University of Washington, Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch hacker, and Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Iceland parliamentary member — “knew that their communications with Twitter would be transmitted out of private spaces and onto the Internet for routing to Twitter,” and thus denied their petition to block an earlier court order from Magistrate Judge Theresa C. Buchanan requiring Twitter to hand over their information to the Justice Department.
The information requested by the Justice Department in December 2010 included usernames, credit card information, billing addresses, email addresses as well as the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses for the users’, all of which, they argued could lead the government to their home addresses. Specifically, the government sought to find the time of each private Twitter “Direct message,” (DM) sent by the users to one another during the period from November 9, 2010 to January 2011, including when they were discussing the November 28, 2010 release of some 250,000 U.S. State Department cables by Wikileaks. All three are open Wikileaks supporters.
The government also requested Twitter user information of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Pfc. Bradley Manning, neither of whom have attempted to defend themselves against the request in court, according to the Associated Press.
The government’s request came in the form of a USC 2703(d) Stored Communications Act order, which is stronger than a subpoena but less powerful than a search warrant, according to Wired’s Threat Level. The USC 2703(d) amendment, added to the Stored Communications Act in 1994, states, in part: “A governmental entity may require the disclosure by a provider of electronic communication service of the contents of a wire or electronic communication, that is in electronic storage in an electronic communications system for one hundred and eighty days or less.”
The three petitioners had attempted to argue, among other things, that their First Amendment right to freedom of speech and Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure would be violated if Twitter complied with the government’s subpoena, but Judge O’Grady, like Judge Buchanan before him, discounted this reasoning.
Twitter had no comment on the court’s decision, but the three affected parties each responded in turn on Twitter and in the case of Jonsdottir and Gonggrijp, they even blogged about their reactions to the ruling.
“Before my Twitter case, in which the US Department of Justice has demanded that the social media site hands over personal information about my account which it deems necessary to its investigation of WikiLeaks, I didn’t think much about what rights I would be signing off when accepting user agreement in my computer,” Jonsdottir wrote on The Guardian, “The text is usually lengthy, in a legal language that most people don’t understand. Very few people read the user agreements, and very few understand their legal implications if someone in the real world would try to use one against them.”
However, Jonsdottir didn’t just blame her own lack of understanding of the Twitter terms of service and their length for her legal troubles. She also advocated for the development of “human rights online, as they are offline,” saying that we couldn’t rely on large Web companies such as Twitter to protect user interests. “It has never been so easy for Big Brother to pry on all our most sacred information without us ever even knowing,” Jonsdottir concluded.
Gonggrijp, writing on his personal blog was slightly more reserved in his assessment of the outcome: ” The consequences of this decision for me are extremely limited: there’s not a whole lot you can learn from records that Twitter has on me that you can’t learn from reading my blog. There are bigger principles at stake though, and this is not a good ruling for online privacy.”
Gonggrijp also linked to a statement from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, is representing Jonsdottir in the case.
“When you use the Internet, you entrust your online conversations, thoughts, experiences, locations, photos, and more to dozens of companies who host or transfer your data,” said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. “In light of that technological reality, we are gravely worried by the court’s conclusion that records about you that are collected by Internet services like Twitter, Facebook, Skype and Google are fair game for warrantless searches by the government.”
The EFF also explained that the three petitioners and their lawyers were “still reviewing the order and considering possible next steps.”
(H/T: The New York Times.)