On 11 March, a US court ordered Twitter to cooperate with the government in an enquiry into Internet users suspected of working for whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. Twitter will be obliged under the ruling to hand over the personal data of the Internet users concerned.
Judge Theresa Buchanan declared that the ruling did not violate the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression. “The Twitter Order does not seek to control or direct the content of petitioners' speech or association,” she said.
The subscribers concerned, computer security expert researcher Jacob Appelbaum, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir and Dutch programmer Rop Gonggrijp, have appealed.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union are supporting their case.
Justice department ordered Twitter to hand over details of users linked to WikiLeaks
Reporters Without Borders deplores the US Department of Justice’s apparent determination to prosecute WikiLeaks and its leading supporters. It has emerged that a district court in Alexandria, Virginia, sent Twitter a subpoena signed by federal magistrate Theresa Buchanan on 14 December asking for “relevant” information about users suspected of links with WikiLeaks for an “ongoing criminal investigation.”
The subpoena requests information dating back to November 2009 about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, the US army private who is being held on suspicion of leaking the US diplomatic cables to Assange; Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch citizen who used to work with WikiLeaks; Jacob Appelbaum, a US computer programmer; and Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament and former WikiLeaks volunteer.
“After exerting pressure on Paypal, Visa, MasterCard and Amazon, the US government is now stepping up its harassment of WikiLeaks and its supporters,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The federal government is trying at all costs to pursue a criminal investigation. This constitutes a serious breach of personal data protection by the Obama administration, which has repeatedly proclaimed its support for online free expression.”
Reporters Without Borders wrote to President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in mid-December urging them not to prosecute Assange and others linked to his website on the grounds that “the publication of information by WikiLeaks and five associated newspapers was a journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment, even if the information was classified.”
Reporters Without Borders now calls on the US government to abandon its attempt to obtain this personal data and to close this investigation for the sake of fundamental constitutional principles.
Mark Stephens, one of Assange’s lawyers, said the subpoena shows how desperate US officials are to pin a crime on Assange.
The range of information requested from Twitter by the Department of Justice is extraordinary. It includes all the records of Tweets and conversations between users, IP addresses, email addresses and postal addresses, and all “means and source of payment” including bank account and credit card details. Access to exchanges between users and the possibility of accounts being jointly managed mean investigators will have the chance to identify new “suspects.”
Reporters Without Borders hails Twitter’s decision to notify the users who are the target of the investigation. The authorities initially ordered Twitter to say nothing about the court order but after what appears to have been a legal battle, the microblogging service obtained the court’s permission on 5 January to notify the targeted users.
In an email to the users who are being investigated, Twitter said it would have to surrender the requested records within 10 days unless it received notice that a legal motion had been filed to block the court order.
Jonsdottir, the Icelandic parliamentarian, said she would never surrender her personal data to the US Department of Justice voluntarily. In a message posted on Twitter, she said: “I hope they don't think I am so naive that I would be doing any sort of messaging through the Twitter board of any significance or (that would be) incriminating.”
She added that she had contacted Iceland’s justice minister and had requested a meeting with the US ambassador in Reykjavik. The Icelandic interior minister described the US government’s actions as “serious and worrying.”
WikiLeaks thinks similar subpoenas may have been sent to Facebook and Google, which have not yet issued any statement. The WikiLeaks Facebook page has more than 1.5 million “fans” while its Twitter account has more than 600,000 followers.