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As US seeks personal data from Google and Twitter, activists move to protect online speech

By Free Speech Rad... - Posted on 03 July 2012

A coalition of open Internet advocates unveiled a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” this week, seeking to rally activists against censorship and privacy violations from both governments and corporations. The Declaration comes as a Manhattan Judge ordered Twitter to turn over months of personal data from an Occupy Wall Street protester, arrested during last fall's mass demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge. Both Google and Twitter released reports this month showing the US government requested more private user data than any other country in the world, and the companies largely complied.  FSRN’s Alice Ollstein has more.

(Transcript; audio available here)

In a ruling released on Monday, Manhattan Judge Matthew Sciarrino said Twitter must hand over more than three months of archived data on Occupy activist Malcolm Harris, stating: “There can be no reasonable expectation of privacy in a tweet sent around the world.”

But Harris and his lawyer Martin Stolar vow to fight that ruling.

STOLAR: If somebody posts something and the government’s listening to it, and they want to go online and find it, then fine. They can do that because you put it up publicly. The problem comes when the government goes to the stored communications provider like Twitter, which archives everything. There ought to be a few roadblocks set up so the government can’t just issue a piece of paper and say, “We want them.”

23-year-old Harris was one of more than 700 demonstrators arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge last October, charged with disorderly conduct. When the New York Police subpoenaed his Twitter account in January to see if he knowingly violated police orders, both Harris and Twitter challenged it as a violation of his rights to free speech and privacy. The subpoena covers data that was never public, including Harris’ direct messages and IP addresses, and DATA that is no longer public, such as deleted tweets.

Stolar said allowing the government to “go fishing” through social media archives for potentially incriminating evidence will have a chilling effect on activists’ free speech.

STOLAR: It says to the government that you can subpoena anything that anybody does at any time. And it will mean people will be a little gun-shy about what they’re willing to post on Twitter or other social media sights, because they know the government is not only going to be looking at what they post at the time, but collecting several months worth and saying, “We can use anything we want to use here.” It’s a question of government intrusion into the accumulated privacy right an individual has.

This particular request for user information is one of several hundred the US government made to Twitter over this past year. According to the company’s first ever global transparency report, released on Monday, the United States demanded far more personal information than any other government, making 679 requests affecting nearly 950 user accounts since the beginning of the year. No other government even broke 100 requests, though Japan came close. The company also noted that there were more requests in the first half of 2012 than in all of 2011.

The report is modeled after Google’s semi-annual transparency publication, which also shows the US far ahead of the pack. Between July and December of last year, the government made more than 6-thousand data requests affecting more than 12-thousand accounts, and Google complied with 93 percent of those requests. Compare that to Russia, for example, who made only 58 requests, of which Google complied with zero.

Josh Levy with Free Press praised the companies for releasing the reports, but said they need to better explain to their users what information they turn over and why.

LEVY: Twitter and multiple properties of Google are used for speech, for political speech, and one issue these companies, and also Facebook, who hasn’t released this information yet, need to grapple with is what is their role as gatekeepers of expression? That question has not been answered.

Responding to these and other “threats to the Internet” from governments and corporations alike, a group of organizations and activists are currently crafting a “Declaration of Internet Freedom.” The document’s content will be crowd-sourced via reddit, TechDirt and other online forums.  So far, it contains five basic principles for how the Internet should function: freedom of expression, universal access, openness, innovation and privacy.

Levy says the successful battle against two over-broad anti-piracy bills in Congress earlier this year brought about something much bigger.

LEVY: Instead of just fighting back against these threats, which we’re always going to have to do, let’s stand up together and push forward on a movement to make sure eventually those threats aren’t around anymore.

One particular threat on the group’s radar is a cybersecurity bill passed the House in April that would allow much more information sharing between private companies and government agencies. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the Senate say they’ll bring their own versions to the floor this month.

Alice Ollstein, FSRN, Washington


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