Twitter file a motion requesting that the New York state court quash an order that it turn over personal data on one of its users, an Occupy Wall Street protester who was arrested for disorderly conduct last year during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge.
In late January, New York prosecutors served Twitter with a subpoena demanding that the social network hand over data on Malcolm Harris, the arrested protester. The prosecutors demanded Twitter give them both Harris’s email address, as well as all his tweets during a three-month period surrounding his arrest — including deleted tweets.
New York criminal court Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr ruled last month that police could subpoena tweets without the need for a search warrant because, according to Sciarrino, tweets are not actually the property of the person who posted them. Instead, he wrote, “Twitter’s license to use the defendant’s Tweets means that the Tweets the defendant posted were not his.” Because of this, Harris’s motion to quash the subpoena was denied.
In its motion, Twitter argues that Sciarrino’s ruling is based on fundamentally incorrect information. Twitter’s terms of service state that its users “retain [their] rights to any Content [they] submit, post or display on or through” Twitter.
“To hold otherwise imposes a new and overwhelming burden on Twitter to fight for its users’ right, since the Order deprives its users of the ability to fight for their own rights when faced with a subpoena from New York state,” writes Twitter in the motion (pdf).
Twitter also asserts that the Stored Communications Act gives users the ability to challenge subpoenas for account records.
If the court agrees with Twitter, that means prosecutors will be required to obtain a warrant before they can force Twitter to hand over Harris’s (or any other user’s) tweets and account information.
In a blog post, American Civil Liberties Union Staff Attorney Aden Fine heralded Twitter’s action as a victory for free speech online.
“This is a big deal,” writes Fine. “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. And while the individual Internet users can try to defend their rights in the rare circumstances in which they find out about the requests before their information is turned over, that may not be enough. Indeed, even though Twitter provided notice to the Twitter user in this particular case, and even though he was able to get an attorney to file a motion seeking to quash the subpoena, the court found that the Twitter user did not have legal ‘standing’ to challenge the D.A.’s subpoena.
“If Internet users cannot protect their own constitutional rights, the only hope is that Internet companies do so.”