Twitter filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Justice Tuesday challenging the government’s ability to restrict how much detail Twitter can reveal about requests for user data it receives under national security law.
“As part of our latest transparency report released in July, we described how we were being prohibited from reporting on the actual scope of surveillance of Twitter users by the U.S. government,” the company wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “Our ability to speak has been restricted by laws that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider like us from disclosing the exact number of national security letters (NSLs) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders received — even if that number is zero.”
Twitter, Facebook, Google, Verizon, AT&T and others are currently only allowed to disclose such information in broad, unspecified ranges (0-999, for example) and are not allowed to expressly state whether or not they have received certain types of data requests.
“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,” the company wrote. “We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.”
The ongoing conflict for transparency between Silicon Valley and the U.S. government stems from the Snowden leaks last year, specifically that of the National Security Agency’s “PRISM” program. Leaked documents describing the program asserted companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and others were cooperating with NSA by giving the agency back-door access to companies’ servers full of user data.
All of the companies involved have since denied the claims, and continue to petition the government for permission to release more information about the orders for data they are required to comply with for national security purposes in an effort to regain public trust.
The company decided to pursue the fight in the courts after failing to convince the State Department and the FBI to let the company release even a redacted form of a detailed transparency report earlier this year.
Twitter filed the suit with the U.S. District Court of Northern California, asserting that the government has failed its obligation to, when necessary, intrude upon free speech “in the most limited way possible.”
“This is an important issue for anyone who believes in a strong First Amendment, and we hope to be able to share our complete transparency report.”