Twitter sues for right to reveal more about national security requests

Current laws violate Twitter's First Amendment rights, the company says

Twitter sued the U.S. government on Tuesday, becoming the latest tech giant to say it should be able to disclose more about official requests for information about its users.

Earlier suits by Google, Microsoft and others led to a deal under which tech companies can reveal some information about the requests they receive. But Twitter says the restrictions still in place violate its First Amendment rights.

Twitter and other technology companies aren't allowed to disclose the specific numbers of data requests that government agencies make for information on their users. Since Edward Snowden blew the lid off U.S. government surveillance practices last year, technology companies have sought to reveal more about these sorts of data requests, but they haven't made much progress. Google and Microsoft sued the government last year, eventually winning permission to report the numbers of government data requests around national security in broad ranges.

Twitter is making an aggressive move to become more transparent, even if it can't say much about the requests.

"Twitter's ability to respond to government statements around national security surveillance activities and to discuss the actual surveillance of Twitter users is being unconstitutionally restricted by statutes that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider's disclosure of the number of national security letters and court orders issued pursuant to [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] that it has received, if any," the company said in a complaint filed in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Twitter, which is mostly used for posting messages publicly, apparently has a smaller target on its back than Google or Apple. The company says it wants to provide more complete information about the "limited scope of U.S. government surveillance of Twitter user accounts," including the types of requests the company has not received.

Earlier this year, Twitter submitted a draft to the Justice Department of a different version of its transparency report that would have offered more information about its national security requests. But the government told Twitter last month that it could not release that report because the information it contained "is classified and cannot be publicly released," the suit states.

The version of Twitter's report that was released did show a rise in government data requests.

The current rules requiring companies to report national security data requests in very broad ranges came after an agreement reached earlier this year between the Obama administration and Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Yahoo.

None of those companies immediately responded to requests for comment on the Twitter suit or whether they would sue for more disclosure.

In response to Twitter's lawsuit, a Justice Department spokeswoman said Tuesday, "the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information on government requests while also protecting national security."

Twitter's suit comes as a federal appeals court in San Francisco is set to hear arguments on Wednesday over the constitutionality of gag orders that come alongside national security letters requesting information.

Zach Miners covers social networking, search and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zachminers. Zach's e-mail address is zach_miners@idg.com

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Zach Miners

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