Twitter sues US government over user data-request gag rules

Social network says current government restrictions on transparency are preventing tech companies from being fully honest with the public.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
2 min read


Twitter is suing the US government in federal court to loosen restrictions that prevent full disclosure of government demands for Twitter user data.

The suit, filed by the San Francisco-based social networking company in the US District Court of Northern California, says that US government prohibitions on sharing the nature of some of its demands for Twitter user data violate the First Amendment's free speech clause (PDF). Twitter legal counsel Ben Lee said in a blog post that the firm believes that current government restrictions on transparency are preventing tech companies from being fully honest with the public.

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

Lee said that currently government restrictions "prohibit and even criminalize" the company from discussing the mere number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and National Security Letter court orders its received -- "even if that number is zero." FISA and NSL court orders for user data play a key role in the government's surveillance apparatus, as revealed in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Before Snowden's leaks to the media, most if not all companies couldn't disclose that they'd received those court orders in the first place. Currently, Twitter and other tech firms can only disclose to the nearest thousand how many orders its has received.

Lee said that Twitter submitted a draft of its most recent Transparency Report to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in an attempt to negotiate a deal without resorting to the courts. After "months of discussions," however, the government refused to budge, he said.

The breakdown in talks appears to contradict a promise by President Obama that tech firms would be given a freer hand to report on government requests.

The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Twitter's lawsuit and encouraged other tech firms to follow suit.

"The Constitution doesn't permit the government to impose so broad a prohibition on the publication of truthful speech about government conduct," said ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer in a statement. "Technology companies have an obligation to protect their customers' sensitive information against overbroad government surveillance, and to be candid with their customers about how their information is being used and shared."