Twitter Appeals Order That It Turn Over Protester’s Posts

Twitter Inc. is appealing a judge’s order to turn over information about an Occupy Wall Street protester’s posts, saying it’s committed to “fighting for our users.”

A notice of appeal was filed in New York criminal court July 17, seeking to overturn a June 30 decision by State Supreme Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. Sciarrino denied Twitter’s request to quash a subpoena from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and said the company must turn over tweets by protester Malcolm Harris, from Sept. 15 to Dec. 30.

“At Twitter, we are committed to fighting for our users, Twitter’s legal counsel Ben Lee said today in an e-mailed statement. ‘‘Accordingly, we are appealing this decision which, in our view, doesn’t strike the right balance between the rights of our users and the interests of law enforcement.”

Erin Duggan, a spokeswoman for Vance, declined to comment.

The case will determine whether Twitter faces the burden of responding to subpoenas for its users, the San Francisco-based company has said. The outcome is significant throughout the U.S. as law enforcement becomes more aggressive in seeking information about what people do and say on the Internet, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a May 31 court filing.

‘To Yourself’

“What you give to the public belongs to the public,” Sciarrino said in his ruling. “What you keep to yourself belongs only to you.”

Sciarrino said the duties of Twitter and other social media companies are similar to those of witnesses to street crimes.

Twitter provides real-time messaging and allows users to make posts that are broadcast to people who sign up to follow them.

Twitter had asked Sciarrino to reverse an April ruling denying Harris’s request to quash a subpoena from Vance. Sciarrino ordered Twitter instead to comply with the subpoena, saying its users don’t have standing to argue the issue, while the company does

After the judge’s April 20 decision, Twitter updated its terms effective May 17 to say that users retain their right to any content they submit, post or display.

The ACLU had said Harris should be able to argue against the subpoena because his First Amendment right to free speech and his Fourth Amendment right to privacy are implicated.

‘Untenable Position’

Twitter said that if the district attorney can subpoena it for user information, the company would be “put in the untenable position of either providing user communications and account information in response to all subpoenas or attempting to vindicate its users’ rights by moving to quash these subpoenas itself.”

Vance’s subpoena seeks past Twitter posts and user information linked to the “@destructuremal” account of Harris, who was arrested with about 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge on Oct. 1, according to court filings.

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 prosecutors can’t argue that Harris’s posts are “public” because they can’t access his old posts themselves.

“Otherwise the government would have already obtained the subject’s tweets itself and avoided wasting all the time and resources it has trying to enforce an unlawful subpoena issued to Twitter,” the company said in court papers.

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