Twitter’s Response to WikiLeaks Subpoena Should Be the Industry Standard
By standing up for its users, Twitter showed guts and principles. Much of it is likely attributable to Twitter’s general counsel Alexander Macgillivray. As security and privacy blogger Christopher Soghoian notes, Macgillivray was one of the first law students at Harvards’ Berkman internet law center and at in his previous job at Google “played a major role in getting the company to contribute takedown requests to chillingeffects.org.”
On Friday it emerged that the U.S. government recently got a court order demanding that Twitter turn over information about a number of people connected to WikiLeaks, including founder Julian Assange, accused leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning, former WikiLeaks spokeswoman Birgitta Jonsdottir, and WikiLeaks activist Jacob Appelbaum.
The court order came with a gag order that prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the target of the order, about the order’s existence.
To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets that their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.
That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.
Even more remarkable, Twitter’s move comes as a litany of companies, including PayPal, Mastercard, VISA, and Bank of America, follow the political winds away from the First Amendment, banning donations to WikiLeaks. And Amazon.com voluntarily threw the site off its hosting platform, even though there’s nothing illegal in publishing classified documents.
But there’s not yet a culture of companies standing up for users when governments and companies come knocking with subpoenas looking for user data or to unmask an anonymous commenter who says mean things about a company or the local sheriff.
In the WikiLeaks probe, it’s not yet clear whether the feds dropped the same order on other companies.