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Judge orders Twitter to hand over 'Occupy' protester's tweets

July 03, 2012|By Deborah Netburn
  • A participant in an Occupy Wall Street march to the Brooklyn Bridge.
A participant in an Occupy Wall Street march to the Brooklyn Bridge. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Be careful what you tweet. Those 140 character missives may be used against you in a court of law. 

On Saturday, Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino in New York said Twitter must hand over tweets and account information belonging to Brooklyn-based writer Malcolm Harris, one of the 700 people arrested for disorderly conduct during an Occupy Wall Street march on the Brooklyn Bridge in the fall of 2011.

Prosecutors in the case subpoenaed tweets posted by Harris from Sept. 15, 2011, to Dec. 30, 2011, because they say they will demonstrate that he knew that police had ordered protesters not to walk on the bridge's roadway.

Twitter had argued that it would be violating Harris' privacy if it handed over the tweets, which are no longer publicly available, but Sciarrino disagreed. 

"If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy," the judge wrote in the decision made public Monday "This is not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the Internet that now exist."

He said those private exchanges would require a warrant based on probable cause in order to access the relevant information.

That's not how Twitter sees the situation.

"Twitter's terms of service have long made it absolutely clear that its users 'own' their content," Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner wrote in an email to Reuters. "We continue to have a steadfast commitment to our users and their rights."

She added that the company was disappointed by the ruling and would consider its legal options.

But the judge said that people who use Twitter have no reasonable expectation of privacy for tweets that they make public. 

"Even when a user deletes his or her tweets there are search engines available such as 'Untweetable', 'Tweleted' and 'Politwoops' that hold users accountable for everything they had publicly tweeted and later deleted, he wrote. "Therefore, the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights were not violated because there was no physical intrusion of the defendant's tweets and the defendant has no reasonable expectation of privacy in the information he intentionally broadcast to the world." 


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