U.S. prosecutors’ demand that the microblogging service Twitter Inc. hand over data about users with ties to WikiLeaks amounts to harassment, said a lawyer for Julian Assange, the website’s founder.
The Justice Department subpoena, approved last month in federal court and later unsealed, also violates the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable government searches, Assange’s lawyer Mark Stephens said today in a telephone interview in London. WikiLeaks is an organization that publishes leaked documents on its website.
“The Department of Justice is turning into an agent of harassment rather than an agent of law,” Stephens, of the firm Finers Stephens Innocent LLP, said. “They’re shaking the tree to see if anything drops out, but more important they are shaking down people who are supporters of WikiLeaks.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Nov. 29 that the Justice Department is investigating the posting by WikiLeaks of thousands of classified U.S. diplomatic communications and military documents. Lawyers have said the U.S. will likely charge Assange with espionage.
“To help users protect their rights, it’s our policy to notify users about law enforcement and governmental requests for their information, unless we are prevented by law from doing so,” Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner said in an e-mail.
Penner declined to comment specifically on the WikiLeaks subpoena.
The agency’s subpoena of Twitter is “grossly overbroad” and would give prosecutors access to data on a member of Iceland’s parliament and more than 634,000 people who follow WikiLeaks’ so-called tweets on the site, Stephens said. Similar information was sought from Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and EBay Inc.’s Skype unit, he said.
“What they will then do is take that data and analyze it in conjunction with data they get from Google, Facebook and the other social media, so that they can ascertain individuals that they feel they want to pay more attention to,” Stephens said.
Stephens regularly represents media organizations, including Bloomberg News.
Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Online magazine Salon posted a copy of the Jan. 5 order from Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, unsealing the December subpoena.
Assange, an Australian who was arrested last month in London and is free on bail, is facing extradition to Sweden to face unrelated allegations of sexual misconduct against two women. A hearing in the case is scheduled for tomorrow.
Stephens, who is representing Assange as he fights the extradition, has previously suggested the case is politically motivated and somehow related to WikiLeaks.
Sally Aldous, an outside spokeswoman for Facebook declined to comment. Calls to the U.K. press offices for Google and EBay weren’t immediately returned.