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article imageTwitter lawsuit seeks transparency in surveillance requests

By Greta McClain     Oct 8, 2014 in Technology
San Francisco - Twitter has filed suit against the U.S Justice Department, claiming current laws restricting what the company can publicly disclose about national security requests is a violation of the First Amendment.
The lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for Northern California, challenges current federal regulations which prohibits Twitter and other service providers from disclosing the number of national security letters (“NSLs”) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) court orders it receives.
In court documents filed on Tuesday, Twitter contends the regulations unconstitutionally restricts the company's "ability to respond to government statements about national security surveillance activities and to discuss the actual surveillance of Twitter users." The lawsuit also argues that under the First Amendment, Twitter is entitled to the right to respond to user concerns and to issue statements regarding the scope of surveillance by the U.S. Government on Twitter user accounts
In a statement issued by Twitter, the company says:
"It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance – including what types of legal process have not been received. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.
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 U.S. 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."
The lawsuit comes after a January agreement was reached between the Justice Department and several technology companies that relaxed a long-standing gag order. The agreement allowed companies to report the number of data requests made, but only if the report used wide numerical ranges. Following the agreement, the Justice Department issued a statement which said:
“While this aggregate data was properly classified until today, the office of the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other departments and agencies, has determined that the public interest in disclosing this information now outweighs the national security concerns that required its classification.”
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Twitter, who did not participate in the discussions leading up to the January agreement, does not believe the agreement went far enough, citing the September notification by the Justice Department which said the information contained in Twitter's transparency report was "classified and cannot be publicly released.” Based on that notification, Twitter is asking the court to find such restrictions unconstitutional under the First Amendment and a violation of the company's right to speak freely about government surveillance.
A hearing date for the lawsuit has not been set.
The ACLU's deputy legal director, Jameel Jaffer, applauds the lawsuit, saying:
"Twitter is doing the right thing by challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders. If these laws prohibit Twitter from disclosing basic information about government surveillance, then these laws violate the First Amendment."
Justice Department spokeswoman, Emily Pierce, issued a statement regarding the lawsuit which pointed to the January agreement. In the statement Pierce says:
"Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies. There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information on government requests while also protecting national security."
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