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Twitter may sue US government over right to disclose snooping orders

Current compromise not 'meaningful'

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Twitter says that the current compromise allowing tech companies to disclose some of the data requests orders made in secret by the US intelligence services isn't good enough, and it may sue to get the right to be more transparent.

"We think the government’s restriction on our speech not only unfairly impacts our users' privacy, but also violates our First Amendment right to free expression and open discussion of government affairs," wrote Jeremy Kessel, Twitter's manager for global legal policy, in a blog post on Thursday.

"We believe there are far less restrictive ways to permit discussion in this area while also respecting national security concerns," Kessel wrote. "Therefore, we have pressed the U.S. Department of Justice to allow greater transparency, and proposed future disclosures concerning national security requests that would be more meaningful to Twitter's users. We are also considering legal options we may have to seek to defend our First Amendment rights."

Twitter, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and others sued the US government for the right to disclose when its customer data was accessed by the NSA and others after contractor Edward Snowden made the existence of wide-scale snooping public with a series of leaked documents.

Last week the government agreed to a compromise, and on Monday most of the companies published lists of how often they were subject to both national security letters, which are issued by the FBI for terrorism and intelligence data, and how frequently Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders are used to collect either the content of communications or communication metadata of users.

But the amount of data they are allowed to release is limited to very broad numerical increments – typically in units of a thousand – and is kept under embargo for six months. Twitter wants to publish much more detailed data on what is being taken and why, and also wants the right to say if it has had no requests, and not just to say between zero and 999 as is currently the case.

Along with the statement, Twitter also released its latest transparency report. The US is still asking for the most information, accounting for 59 per cent of requests for data, followed by Japan and Saudi Arabia. Requests for data from all governments are up 66 per cent over the last two years, based on data from Twitter's latest transparency report, and up 22 per cent in the last six months.

Twitter's data for the last six months of 2013 shows that when it comes to getting offending tweets deleted, the French government is by far the most active. Meanwhile, Iran is the fastest rising nation that actively blocks tweets without getting in touch.

Unfortunately for the abbreviated chatter site, faced with legal action by Twitter alone the US government might well decide to argue its case in court, and there's no sign of eagerness on behalf of Twitter's former partners for freedom of expression to take up the cause again. ®

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