Twitter Seeks Court Order to Say Users Can Fight Subpoena

Twitter Inc. challenged a judge’s order that it turn over to prosecutors information about an Occupy Wall Street protester’s posts, saying it will seek a ruling allowing users to fight subpoenas directed at the company.

New York state Supreme Court Justice Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. denied Twitter’s request to block a subpoena by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., holding in a June 30 decision that the real-time short-messaging service must turn over posts written by protester Malcolm Harris, who was arrested after a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge, from Sept. 15 to Dec. 30.

“Twitter users own their tweets,” Twitter’s legal counsel Ben Lee said today in an e-mailed statement. “They have a right to fight invalid government requests.”

The case may determine whether Twitter faces the burden of responding to subpoenas on behalf of its users, the San Francisco-based company has said. The American Civil Liberties Union said in a May 31 filing in the case that the outcome may have national implications as law enforcement becomes more aggressive in seeking information posted on the Internet.

Twitter “provides a voice for liberty around the globe,” from political movements in the Middle East to Chinese citizens seeking to evade state barriers on communication, the company said in court papers filed today in Manhattan. The U.S. State department has also sought the company’s assistance to help Iranians communicate about election issues, Twitter said.

Standard Policy

Twitter’s standard policy is to let users know if their information has been subpoenaed, giving them an opportunity to fight it, lawyers for the company wrote.

Joan Vollero, a spokeswoman for Vance, declined to comment on the appeal. Vance’s office has said in court papers that the subpoena doesn’t violate the Constitution because Harris can’t have “a reasonable expectation of privacy in information he publicly and intentionally broadcast to the world.”

Twitter signed an agreement with the Library of Congress in 2010 that would have every public “tweet” archived, according to court papers filed by Vance.

The subpoena by Vance’s office seeks Harris’s past Twitter posts and user information linked to his “@destructuremal” account. Harris was arrested with about 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1, according to court filings. Occupy Wall Street protestors seek to draw attention to unemployment, financial inequality and wrongdoing in the banking industry.

Martin Stolar, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild who had filed the request to invalidate the subpoena on behalf of Harris, called it “unusual” for Twitter to be involved in such a case. There was no indication Harris had a conspiratorial role or did anything out of the ordinary, Stolar has said.

Information Sought

The information sought covers about 3 1/2 months, including Harris’s arrest date, as well as Internet Protocol addresses corresponding to each post -- something that would allow prosecutors to see Harris’s location at the time the posts were sent.

Twitter said users have three legal grounds to block subpoenas directed at the company: Under New York law, a proprietary interest in the subject matter of a subpoena gives a third party such rights; the Stored Communications Act, which governs disclosure from Internet service providers; and the U.S. Constitution.

The case is People of the State of New York v. Harris, 11-80152, Supreme Court of the State of New York (Manhattan).

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