Twitter gets help in 'gag orders' lawsuit

Twitter is getting some assistance in its battle against government “gag orders” that prevent it from detailing information it is ordered to hand over to federal agents.  

Two unnamed companies who are locked in their own battle against the government are backing the Web service’s claim that federal restrictions on what it can say about secretive national security letters (NSLs) violate its constitutional right to free speech.

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The two companies — one Internet and one telecommunications firm — are remaining anonymous in compliance with the government’s orders that they not disclose the fact that they have received the orders. They are being represented by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group that has protested government secrecy.

“Our clients want to talk about their experience with these NSLs, but the government is unconstitutionally shielding itself from any criticism or critique of their procedures,” legal fellow Andrew Crocker said in a statement.

The FBI has used national security letters for decades in order to get information to fight terrorism, but has leaned on them especially hard in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Many of the orders  — which do not require court approval — come with restrictions preventing recipients from detailing what types of information they had to give the government.

According to the federal agencies, those limits are necessary to keep investigations secret and to avoid tipping off terrorists early in an investigation. In arguments to the court earlier this year, the Justice Department said that the rules appropriately balance security with transparency and warned that too much disclosure “would risk serious harm to national security.”

But for the two unnamed companies, the “gag orders” are “an unconstitutional prior restraint” that “violates the First Amendment,” they wrote in their friend-of-the-court brief filed on Tuesday. “Prior restraint” is a legal term for censorship before an act has occurred. 

The two companies are in the midst of their own case against the orders, and made arguments in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in October. Major tech firms including Google and Yahoo — who have come under fire in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about U.S. spying — have rallied around the case in an effort to reassure their users.