Twitter has joined the tech-industry assault on the federal government’s national-security surveillance programs, suing Tuesday to strike down rules that bar the blogging giant from publicly disclosing the scope of demands for user information.
Twitter’s lawsuit, filed in San Francisco federal court, alleges that top U.S. Justice Department officials have rejected the company’s request to fully reveal how much the government is seeking through its national-security investigations.
Five major companies — Apple, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and LinkedIn — earlier this year reached a settlement that allowed them to disclose some level of information in twice-a-year “transparency reports,” but Twitter argues that the limits violate free-speech rights and are unconstitutional.
Twitter is going further than the rest of the tech industry, seeking broader rights to expose how much government surveillance, if any, is going on in the Twitterverse.
“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,” Twitter argues in its lawsuit.
Twitter’s legal salvo involves both national-security letters sent by the FBI that forbid the release of information and National Security Agency demands for internet-user data.
In many respects, Twitter’s primary legal argument will be under consideration Wednesday, when a federal appeals court is set to hear arguments in a challenge to the provision in the Patriot Act that makes it illegal to disclose even the fact that a national security letter has been received.
Two telecommunications companies have sued over the provision, backed by tech companies such as Facebook and Yahoo. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is reviewing a federal judge’s ruling last year declaring that the provision violates the First Amendment.
The FBI sends tens of thousands of the national-security letters each year. The Justice Department defends the ban on releasing the information, arguing that it is a modest restriction given that the investigations involve anti-terrorism and sensitive probes into spying on U.S. turf.
Twitter has been engaged in high-level meetings with FBI and Justice Department officials over the past five months, seeking the right to reveal more specifics to the public about government requests for user information than the pact reached with the five tech companies, according to the lawsuit.
However, Justice Department officials last month sent Twitter executives a letter rejecting the request to expand transparency reports, prompting the company’s lawsuit.
Among other arguments, Twitter insists that its platform is unique, requiring more transparency with its users, ranging from journalists to prominent public figures.
“Twitter is a unique service built on trust and transparency,” the lawsuit states. “The ability of Twitter users to share information depends, in part, on their ability to do so without undue fear of government surveillance.”