Twitter is blocked from releasing government surveillance requests

Back in 2014, Twitter filed a lawsuit seeking the ability to release a “transparency report” containing figures concerning how many times the government requested surveillance data on its users. They had previously submitted a draft of the report to the Justice Department for approval. The DoJ refused and decided to fight them in court over it. That legal battle has dragged on for six years now, but this week a federal judge decided to side with Uncle Sam and block the release of that data. Privacy advocates are crying foul, but the judge was apparently persuaded by the DOJ’s claim that such a release would pose a grave threat to national security. (NBC News)

Twitter Inc. will not be able to reveal surveillance requests it received from the U.S. government after a federal judge accepted government arguments that this was likely to harm national security after a near six-year long legal battle.

The social media company had sued the U.S. Department of Justice in 2014 to be allowed to reveal, as part of its “Draft Transparency Report”, the surveillance requests it received. It argued its free-speech rights were being violated by not being allowed to reveal the details.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers granted the government’s request to dismiss Twitter’s lawsuit in an eleven page order filed in the U.S. District Court for Northern California.

Before anyone starts complaining about the Trump Justice Department, let’s keep in mind that this lawsuit began in 2014. (Remind me again who was President then?) So this is something that four different Attorneys General from both parties have opposed. Also, judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers is a Democrat.

For their part, Twitter argued that quashing the draft transparency report amounted to the suppression of their right to free speech. Despite the importance of the point they’re making, I’ll just point out that it’s rather rich to hear a complaint about free speech from the same company that has been banning users right and left for expressing opinions as to the origins of the coronavirus. But that doesn’t totally invalidate their claim.

What’s not been made clear is precisely why the release of those numbers would pose a grave threat to national security. The decision references multiple classified declarations from the government but does not offer any specifics as to what they included. (You can read the full decision here. It’s pretty dense and full of legalese.)

So what is the DoJ’s argument here? As I understand it, Twitter wasn’t looking to release a list of names of users who may have been subject to surveillance. They just want to publish a list of how many times they had received FISA requests or other Justice Department requests for information. If that’s the case, it’s tough to see how national security would be compromised, even if they’re talking about possibly revealing sources and methods. If they’re worried that we might find out that the government asks companies for our private data, I think that horse has already left the barn.

I suppose this question also revolves around what specific data the government was asking for. Your regular tweets are public, so they wouldn’t need a warrant to view them. Were they asking for DMs? Or was it a case where they were seeking the real names of people with anonymous accounts? (That’s assuming that Twitter even knows, which isn’t a sure thing except in the case of people with blue checkmarks.

We should probably default to respecting a claim of potential grave threats to national security when the Justice Department raises that flag. But at the same time, we can’t allow that to be an excuse to suppress free speech on a whim. The government certainly could have done a better job explaining why they made this decision.

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