Twitter Sues For Right To Disclose Details Of Government Surveillance Requests

The Twitter Inc. logo is displayed on the facade of the company's headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursda
The Twitter Inc. logo is displayed on the facade of the company's headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013. Twitter Inc. surged 85 percent in its trading debut, as investors paid a premium for its promises of fast growth. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Twitter on Tuesday filed suit against the FBI and the Justice Department, seeking the ability to release detailed information on government surveillance of Twitter users.

“We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail,” Twitter said in a blog post announcing the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court.

Like other major tech companies, Twitter releases reports disclosing how many government requests it receives for information on its users. But the reports are vague because Twitter is barred by law from disclosing more details on government surveillance requests.

Twitter is asking a judge for permission to publish its full transparency report, including the number of so-called “national security letters” and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders that it receives. Twitter claims that restrictions on its ability to speak about government surveillance requests are unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

“It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance – including what types of legal process have not been received," Twitter said in its post. "We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges."

In July, Twitter said it received 2,058 requests for information on its users over the previous six months from governments around the world -- a 46 percent increase. More than 60 percent of those requests came from the U.S. government.

Tech companies have asked the federal government for the right to disclose more detailed data on surveillance requests, but have been rebuffed. In April, Twitter said it provided a draft of its full transparency report to the Justice Department and the FBI. But after many months of discussions, Twitter said Tuesday “we were unable to convince them to allow us to publish even a redacted version of the report.”

The FBI and Justice Department did not return requests for comment.

Twitter said it supports the USA Freedom Act of 2014, which was introduced earlier this year by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The bill would allow for greater public reporting about government surveillance requests.

Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, applauded Twitter's lawsuit.

“Twitter is doing the right thing by challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders,” Jaffer said, adding that “we hope that other technology companies will now follow Twitter’s lead.”

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