Twitter Throws Occupy Protestor Under the Bus

Posted September 14, 2012 in Social Networks by

NEWS UPDATE: See the story and video at Twitter Caves and Hands Over Protester’s Tweets to Avoid Fines.

Twitter just handed over three months’ worth of an Occupy Wall Street protester’s tweets to a judge in a criminal trial. Twitter claimed it was defending its users’ right to privacy, but in the end it threw protestor Malcolm Harris under the bus.

Harris is a Twitter user who is being prosecuted for trespassing during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge last year.

See what people are saying on Twitter:

Twitter forks over data on OWS protester – lame…
— Dan Feidt (@HongPong) September 14, 2012

Harris tried to fight the Manhattan DA’s attempt to subpoena his tweets during the protest, but in July the court said he had no standing – or, no dog in that fight – as he didn’t own his tweets; Twitter did, according to its own terms of service. In July, Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. ordered Twitter to turn over Harris’s tweets.

See what people are saying now on Twitter.




















So, Twitter stepped up to the plate and fought the subpoena, filing its appeal of the judge’s ruling to great fanfare. “Twitter users own their Tweets,” tweeted Ben Lee, the company’s legal counsel, that same day. “They have a right to fight invalid government requests, and we continue to stand with them in that fight.”









Kudos, with a Price

ACLU's Aden Fine

Twitter’s response in the Harris case has earned the social media company kudos from privacy advocates. “Twitter should be commended for taking that bold step,” wrote Aden Fine, senior staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, on the ACLU’s blog. “But Twitter shouldn’t have even been forced to take it.”

Twitter’s response to the Harris case puts the company in the difficult – and expensive – position of fighting its users’ legal battles, but maybe one it won’t find itself in again. Since the Harris case began, Twitter changed its terms of service (TOS) to indicate users own their Twitter content.

“You are responsible for your use of the Services, for any Content you post to the Services, and for any consequences thereof,” warns Twitter’s current TOS. “The Content you submit, post, or display will be able to be viewed by other users of the Services and through third party services and websites . . . . You should only provide Content that you are comfortable sharing with others under these Terms.”


Twitter’s Last Stand?

“This case is especially important because it involves the issue of whether Internet users have the right to go to court to protect their constitutional rights when the government asks third-party Internet companies for sensitive information about those users,” says Fine, who adds that Twitter’s decision to get involved “will hopefully make law enforcement think carefully before doing something similar again.”

The root issue here, whether users themselves will be allowed to defend against government attempts to use subpoenas to mine their social media content without search warrants – and the constitutional protections involve – is still open. A Twitter spokesperson refused to comment on whether the company would continue to go to court to protect users like Harris.

As Fine says, “Twitter’s involvement will hopefully help convince the appeals court that individual Internet users have the right to challenge government requests for information about them, even if the Internet service company does not take the extraordinary step of getting directly involved in the case.”

Do you think Twitter should defend against the government’s attempts to get around the rigors of getting search warrants? Discuss the case with other readers below.

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