Twitter told to give up Occupy protester’s tweets
NEW YORK—Twitter must turn over about three months’ worth of an Occupy Wall Street protester’s tweets, a judge said Monday, in a case that has become a closely watched fight over law enforcement agencies’ access to material posted on social networks.
The case began as one of hundreds of disorderly conduct prosecutions after an October 1 march in New York that brought the young Occupy protest movement its first burst of worldwide attention.
Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. rebuffed one of Twitter Inc.’s central arguments, which concerned who has the right to fight law enforcement demands for content posted on its site. But the judge agreed with the company on a separate point that could require prosecutors to take further steps if they want to see the final day’s worth of Malcolm Harris’ tweets and his user information.
Sciarrino said he would review all the material he ordered turned over and would provide “relevant portions” to prosecutors.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office said Harris’ messages could show whether he was aware of police orders he’s charged with disregarding.
Twitter said the case could put it in the unwanted position of having to take on legal fights that users could otherwise conduct on their own.
Twitter called the ruling disappointing and said it was considering its next move. “We continue to have a steadfast commitment to our users and their rights,” the company said in a statement.
Electronic privacy and civil liberties advocates had cheered Twitter’s decision to take up the fight.
“This is a big deal,” since authorities increasingly seek to mine social networks for information, American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney Aden Fine wrote in May. “It is so important to encourage those companies that we all increasingly rely on to do what they can to protect their customers’ free speech and privacy rights.”
Twitter stepped in after the judge turned down Harris’ own request earlier this year to block prosecutors from subpoenaing his tweets and user information from September 15 to Decembr 31.
“We look forward to Twitter’s complying and to moving forward with the trial,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Daniel R. Alonso said in a statement.
Harris’ lawyer, Martin Stolar, said he was studying the ruling to determine how to respond.
Harris was among more than 700 people arrested in the October march. Police said demonstrators ignored warnings to stay on a pedestrian path and went onto the roadway. Harris, an editor for an online culture magazine, and others say they thought they had police permission to go on the roadway.
He challenged the subpoena for his tweets, saying the timespan was unreasonably broad. He said seeking the accompanying user information violated his privacy and free association rights.
The data could give prosecutors a picture of his followers, their interactions through replies and retweets, and his location at various points, Stolar said.
Prosecutors said the tweets might contradict Harris’ claim that he thought police were allowing the protesters onto the roadway. They said he couldn’t claim his privacy rights should shield messages he sent publicly.
Twitter had argued that Harris had every right to fight the subpoena. Its user agreements say users own content they post and can challenge demands for their records, and it would be “a new and overwhelming burden” for Twitter to have to champion such causes for them, the company argued in a court filing.
Twitter prevailed on the argument that some of the tweets shouldn’t be turned over because a federal law requires a court-approved search warrant, not just a subpoena issued by prosecutors, for stored electronic communications that are less than 180 days old.
Sciarrino found that law did apply — but only to Harris’ tweets and information for December 31, since the rest were more than 180 days old by the Saturday date of the ruling. It was released Monday.
Harris’ case is set for trial in December.
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