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New York court upholds order forcing Twitter to turn over user data

The Criminal Court of the City of New York this week upheld a subpoena [order, PDF] forcing social networking site Twitter [corporate website] to turn over account information for one of its users. The District Attorney's office requested the user data to aid in the investigation of Malcolm Harris, a Twitter user who has been charged with disorderly conduct and is under investigation for his activities during a protest. Twitter filed a motion to quash the subpoena after the court ruled in April that Harris did not have standing to challenge the order. The court reasoned that Harris and other social networking users do not have a proprietary interest in the material they share with Twitter. Among the data sought are Harris's email address, "tweets" posted to the site and IP addresses connected with postings during a three-month period. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) [advocacy website] filed an amicus brief [text, PDF] supporting Harris and Twitter, arguing that the government must obtain a warrant in order to access the Twitter account and that Harris should be able to challenge the subpoena himself in court. Aden Fine, an ACLU Senior Staff Attorney, expressed disappointment with the decision [press release]:

The government shouldn't be able to get this sensitive and constitutionally protected information without a warrant and without first satisfying First Amendment scrutiny. Because the D.A. didn't do that here, it shouldn't be permitted to obtain this information about Mr. Harris's Twitter activities ...Twitter should continue to be applauded for stepping in and challenging this particular subpoena. The unfortunate reality, however, is that Twitter and other Internet companies cannot challenge every one of these requests for information about one of their millions of users. That is why it is so important that individuals be allowed to go to court to protect their own rights, and that is why this court's decision is so wrong.
Twitter is now required to turn over the information to the District Attorney's office. Fine said he hoped the issue would be reconsidered by a higher court.

Internet privacy issues in the US have become increasingly controversial in recent years. A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia in February dismissed a suit [JURIST report] from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a consumer privacy group, asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to block Google's proposed privacy policy changes. EPIC brought suit against the FTC earlier that month [JURIST report]. The new policy allows user information to be shared among different Google products, including YouTube, Gmail, and Google Maps. Last year, US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a bill [JURIST report] amending the 25-year-old Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (EPCA), which he authored, to require the government to obtain a warrant before searching private e-mails and other data stored on an Internet cloud. Earlier that month, US Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) released a draft bill that would restrict companies [JURIST report] from tracking the Internet activity of minors without parental consent.

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About Paper Chase

Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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