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Twitter: We Hand Your Info to the US Government 75% of the Time


Independence Day serves as a reminder that private companies own our free speech.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL On July 4th, Americans remember the version of history that they were taught in which British colonists uniformly rose up against foreign tyranny and set the world on a path towards an expansion of democratic freedom for all people.

Half a generation later, trendy ideas from the 18th century were codified into the law of the land, giving Americans a guarantee that their freedom of speech, religion, and assembly would be respected, and the government would not force itself into their private lives. Even accused criminals have the right to due process under the law before their freedom is severely curtailed assuming they are incarcerated.

Aside from the obvious problems with this triumphant narrative, the game has changed -- and with social media, it is easier than ever for the government to silently intrude on our privacy, sometimes without us knowing it. Thanks to social media, speech and assembly are more free and open than ever, but keep in mind that the forum is not a public square. It makes sense for protesters to take take "our" streets, but the servers and hard drives that comprise online speech are undeniably owned by private-sector corporations.

Increasingly, the forum in which social movements are organized, suppressed information is released to the public, corporations and politicians reach out the constituents, and news is often broken is also the place where P. Diddy posts inspirational wisdom and advocates for genocide of "haters." Of course, I am referring to Twitter.

Twitter more or less proactively released its first transparency report yesterday that counted the number of government requests for user information and to withold content as well as takedown notices from copyright holders and how often Twitter complies. The Silicon Valley wunderkind company noted that it has "received more government requests in the first half of 2012, as outlined in this initial dataset, than in the entirety of 2011. "

Twitter has complied with 63% of 849 user requests. The US saw by far the most information requests, and Twitter divulged user information for 75 of those requests.

Perhaps Twitter chose an inauspicious day to release this transparency report. Yesterday was also the day in which the social website lost a case with the Manhattan District Attorney, which subpoenaed private information on an Occupy Wall Streeter named Malcolm Harris, who was one of hundreds of protesters that was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. Twitter tried pretty hard to get the subpoena thrown out under the Stored Communications Act. Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino wrote in his opinion:

If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. There is no proprietary interest in your tweets, which you have now gifted to the world. This is not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the internet that now exist.
In another ruling that disappointed proponents of free online speech, US District Judge Raymond Jackson ruled that Facebook (FB) "likes" are not protected by the First Amendment. The case that brought this issue to court was that of an employee of a Virginia Sheriff that was fired after he "liked" his boss' political opponent on Facebook.

In other countries, Twitter has a pretty clear track record of protecting their users' content from takedown notices.

The information here only covers January 2012 to the end of June 2012. The vast majority of privacy issues that the report addresses dealt with copyright infringement.

Twitter put a shout-out to Google (GOOG), which published a transparency report of its own. Google responded to this gesture of amity from its competitor with a lighthearted tweet.

Google either fully or partially complied to 93% of the 6,321 user information requests that it received from the US government agencies (including state and local governments).

About a month ago, we reported on the Electric Frontier Foundation's report on Internet companies' privacy policies. In that report, Google and Twitter both scored fairly high, while Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Verizon (VZ), and AT&T (T) all scored rather low in terms of privacy.

The EFF and several Internet illuminati are currently lobbying Congress for an update of the 1986 Electric Communications Privacy Act for "Digital Due Process."

Twitter: @vincent_trivett
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