Twitter Goes to Court to Protect Occupy Data

San Francisco-based startup challenges court order demanding it turn over the activity of an Occupy Wall Street protester.

By Sajid Farooq
|  Wednesday, May 9, 2012  |  Updated 3:44 AM EDT
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Twitter Goes to Court to Protect Occupy Data

Twitter is refusing to comply with a court order demanding that it turn over information about one of its users.

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Twitter has filed a motion to block a court order demanding it turn over user information in a battle involving an Occupy protester, which could shape the future of First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights on the Internet.

A New York state court had ordered the San Francisco-based social-networking site to release the activity of a Twitter user named Malcolm Harris.

Harris, who describes himself as a Bay Area-based writer, is being prosecuted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for disorderly conduct in connection with the Occupy Wall Street protest that occurred when he was on the Brooklyn Bridge last year.

Prosecutors had filed a 2703 order, which allows them to access some user information without a subpoena.

It is not clear what exactly prosecutors are seeking from Twitter. And an archive of Harris' Twitter feed cuts off well before October 1, when protesters, including Harris, took to the Brooklyn Bridge.

On Monday, Twitter filed a motion trying to block the order requiring the company to turn over Harris' communication history on his personal account.

"As we said in our brief, 'Twitter's Terms of Service make absolutely clear that its users own their content,'" Ben Lee, Twitter's legal counsel, said. "Our filing with the court reaffirms our steadfast commitment to defending those rights for our users."

Twitter, in addition to saying it doesn't own Harris' activity, also argued in the filing that providing authorities with his information would be a violation of Harris' Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. And since Twitter is headquartered in California, the argument continued, prosecutors should be forced to file any requests from the company locally.

The decision to challenge the order was applauded by the American Civil Liberties Union Tuesday.

Aden Fine, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU, called Twitter's defense of its users absolutely necessary.

"This is a big deal," Fine said in a statement. "Law enforcement agencies—both the federal government and state and city entities—are becoming increasingly aggressive in their attempts to obtain information about what people are doing on the Internet.'

Twitter has been working with Harris, including advising him to get an attorney to try to block the order on his behalf, according to Fine.

But a New York judge ruled that Harris did not have the legal standing to block the court order, which is what pushed Twitter to file its brief.

"If Internet users cannot protect their own constitutional rights, the only hope is that Internet companies do so," Fine said.

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