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ACLU, EFF: Subpoena for Twitter data would chill free speech

Consumer rights groups oppose subpoena for Twitter data of arrested demonstrator.

Three consumer rights groups filed a friend of the court brief today arguing that allowing the government access to an individual's Twitter account information would chill free speech.

The brief filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Public Citizen comes three weeks after Twitter filed its own challenge to an order from a New York State court requiring it to hand over data on one of its users who was arrested for disorderly conduct during an Occupy Wall Street protest last year.

The District Attorney's Office in New York wants Twitter to turn over information from Malcolm Harris' Twitter account (@destructuremal), including his tweets and the date, time, duration, and IP address corresponding with each time he logged into his account. Harris has moved to quash the subpoena, but the Criminal Court of the City of New York denied his motion. This information can also reveal information about Harris' location when he used Twitter because IP addresses correlate to specific geographic locations.

The EFF previously has said that by granting the subpoena request the court is allowing prosecutors to bypass the need or a search warrant as typically required when seeking location information.

"The aggregation of this information will, thus, provide the D.A. with a comprehensive and detailed map of where Harris was when he was expressing certain thoughts or simply reading others' tweets, over a three-and-a-half month period, regardless of whether there is any connection between those tweets and the pending prosecution," the brief says. "On their own, some of these details about Harris's communications might not be terribly invasive. Combined over such a long period of time, however, these discrete details and data points will enable the D.A. to piece together a comprehensive portrait of Harris's expressive activities and habits, directly implicating his First Amendment rights."

People will be less likely to share spontaneous information and ostensibly anonymous opinions on the Internet if they believe the government will have access to it and be able to combine it with location and other data, the groups argued.