Twitter, Seeking Transparency on User Surveillance, Sues U.S. Government

Company Breaks Ranks With Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Others

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Twitter broke ranks and sued the U.S. for blocking it from publicizing more information about spy agency orders for user data after Google and other technology giants agreed to follow government disclosure rules.

The San Francisco-based social-media company, which says those rules violate free speech rights, is seeking to publish precise numbers of government requests and describe to its customers Twitter's exposure to national surveillance, according to a complaint filed today in federal court in San Francisco.

After U.S. Justice Department officials met with Twitter in January and reviewed a draft of what the company sought to reveal in a so-called transparency report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said the information is classified and can't be published, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit opens another front in an effort by technology companies to be able to tell users how much information they supply to spy agencies following revelations about U.S. surveillance programs by former government contractor Edward Snowden.

"Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies," Emily Pierce, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said today by e-mail. "There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information on government requests while also protecting national security."

The government's agreement with Google, Facebook, LinkedIn Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo was reached after they sued the Washington-based Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates mostly in secret and issues warrants for collection of foreign intelligence inside the U.S. The settlement allows the technology companies to disclose in bands of 1,000 the number of accounts the government has targeted for surveillance. Twitter opted not to participate in that accord.

"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," Twitter said today in a blog post. "We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges."

Twitter is seeking a court order allowing it to publish the actual aggregate numbers of FBI "National Security Letters," orders for information by federal agents that don't require court approval, as well as a comparison of the volume of the requests it receives with other major social media companies, according to today's complaint.

A federal judge in San Francisco last year ruled that the national security letters law was unconstitutional because it bars recipients from disclosing they received one. A federal appeals court in San Francisco is scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow in the government's challenge to that ruling.

The case is Twitter v. Holder, 14-cv-04480, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

--Bloomberg News

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