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As Occupy anniversary nears, Twitter gives up info on protester

September 15, 2012|By Paloma Esquivel
  • Police arrest protesters on New York's Brooklyn Bridge during a march last year by Occupy Wall Street. Twitter agreed on Friday to hand over about three months worth of tweets to a judge overseeing the criminal trial of protester Malcolm Harris.
Police arrest protesters on New York's Brooklyn Bridge during a march… (Stephanie Keith / Associated…)

In a case that civil liberty and Internet privacy advocates have been watching closely, Twitter on Friday handed over information about an Occupy Wall Street protester to a New York criminal court. The potential impact remains, as yet, unclear.

The New York district attorney’s office had subpoenaed more than three months worth of tweets from the Twitter account of Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris. The office also wanted account information. The tweets are no longer publicly available, so there was no way to retrieve them without the inside help.

Earlier this summer, the judge in the case ordered the company to turn over the records.

The company finally complied, turning over the messages and information this week, just days before the movement marks its one-year anniversary. Whether the Occupy protests will have any lasting impact, as some have begun to question, the Twitter case suggests that the movement's ripple effect is continuing.

Harris was charged with disorderly conduct after his arrest at an Occupy protest last year on the Brooklyn Bridge, and prosecutors say his Twitter messages could show whether he was aware of police orders to stay on a pedestrian path.

Harris and other protesters -- almost 700 were arrested in the bridge protest -- said they believed they were allowed to use the roadway.

In an amicus brief filed on behalf of Twitter, attorneys for the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Citizen argued that seeking the information without a warrant violates Harris’ rights to free speech and a reasonable expectation of privacy. They argued that allowing government access to the information without a warrant could have a chilling effect on speech.

“Although the prevalence of the Internet and its accompanying technological advances, such as Twitter, provide invaluable tools for creating and disseminating information, the unprecedented potential for Internet companies to store vast amounts of personal information for an indefinite time – and for the government to obtain that information – poses a new threat to free speech and the right to personal privacy,” the attorneys wrote.

The judge in the case has said that Twitter posts are public and therefore not protected from disclosure.

“The Constitution gives you the right to post, but as numerous people have learned, there are still consequences for your public posts,” Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. wrote. “What you give to the public belongs to the public. What you keep to yourself belongs only to you.”

Some believe the case will test the willingness of Internet companies to challenge government efforts to obtain user information. Twitter had initially challenged the subpoena but was ordered to give up the information or face a large fine.

In a blog post on the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s website, staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury wrote that the court put Twitter in an untenable position between turning over the data or being held in contempt of court.

“We urge companies not to falter in the face of this setback, and continue to fight for the users,” he wrote.

In a statement to the court, which was posted online by the website Digital Trends, Twitter requested that the court hold the documents in a sealed envelope while it pursues an appeal of the judge’s order.

The Associated Press reported that the judge agreed to keep the records sealed until a Sept. 21 hearing to challenge the decision. 

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paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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