Twitter sues feds over surveillance

Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department on Tuesday, claiming the restrictions on what it can disclose about federal searches violate the First Amendment.

The company said that it should be able to tell the public what kind of information it is forced to hand over to federal officials.

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“We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail,” Twitter legal head Ben Lee wrote in a blog post.

“It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance — including what types of legal process have not been received,” he added. “We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.”

Currently, companies are not allowed to disclose the exact number of government demands about user information they receive as either Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders or national security letters. They can disclose only the broad number of requests they receive, in ranges of 1,000.

A January agreement between five other tech companies and the Justice Department gave some relief from those restrictions, but Twitter is going even further in its call to detail exactly how many orders it receives — including zero, if that is the case. 

“These restrictions constitute an unconstitutional prior restraint and content-based restriction on, and government viewpoint discrimination against, Twitter’s right to speak about information of national and global public concern,” the company said in its lawsuit.

Privacy advocates quickly jumped to support the microblogging giant.

“If these laws prohibit Twitter from disclosing basic information about government surveillance, then these laws violate the First Amendment,” American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement. “We hope that other technology companies will now follow Twitter’s lead.”

Federal officials have defended the controversial and secretive data collection programs as necessary to protect the country from terrorists and foreign spies.

Tech companies such as Twitter have had their global reputations damaged by the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and have taken steps to rein in government surveillance in recent months.

Twitter and a handful of other companies have joined forces as the Reform Government Surveillance coalition, and Lee said that Twitter would keep pressing for legislative changes on Capitol Hill.