Twitter has escalated the battle against the US government's data disclosure policies, and has sued the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Unlike other high-profile tech firms which explicitly agree to governmental restrictions on disclosures via an earlier settlement, Twitter feels that the current restrictions are unconstitutional and should be fought.
"It's our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users' concerns and to the statements of US government officials by providing information about the scope of US government surveillance — including what types of legal process have not been received," Twitter vice president Ben Lee said in a prepared statement. "We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges."
That last bit is a reference to companies such as Google and Microsoft, which recently swept their own legal challenges to governmental data requests under the rug by agreeing to release reports about their own data disclosure requests just twice a year. They settled with the government in January along with Facebook, LinkedIn and Yahoo.
Twitter takes exception to the US government's timetable and would like to issue more frequent reports about data requests. Furthermore, it does not agree with another government restriction that these reports only contain broad ranges for the data requests numbers per reporting period—say, "0 – 999" requests as opposed to a more specific number like "473."
The DOJ says that Twitter's competitors have responded to this issue in a more even-handed fashion.
"Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies," a DOJ statement notes. "There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information government requests while also protecting national security."
It is this tension between the legal openness of our society and the desire of law enforcement and governmental agencies such as the DOJ, FBI and NSA to protect the country and its citizens that sits at the heart of many security debates these days, of course. These agencies are looking for external threats, and in the case of data disclosures, they feel that providing too much information publicly will help the (nebulous) enemy. And national security issues often trump constitutional rights.
Twitter's issues with the government came to a head in April when it submitted its July data disclosure report to the DOJ for review. The report came back with very negative feedback .... in September. "We ... have concluded that information contained in the report is classified and cannot be publicly released," Twitter was told. In other words, Twitter could not release its report.
"[This DOJ complaint] forces Twitter either to engage in speech that has been preapproved by government officials or else to refrain from speaking altogether," a Twitter statement about the account explains. "These restrictions constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint and content-based restriction on, and government viewpoint discrimination against, Twitter's right to speak about information of national and global public concern."