Twitter breaks its silence on possibly unconstitutional FBI data requests

After the gag order lifted, Twitter questioned government practices that prevent Twitter from speaking more openly.

A Twitter sign is shown outside of its headquarters in San Francisco. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
A Twitter sign is shown outside of its headquarters in San Francisco. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Twitter spoke out for the first time Friday regarding its federal case over large government data requests.

In a blog post, the company’s associate general counsel Elizabeth Banker wrote that the FBI lifted gag orders issued in 2015 and 2016 related to two national security letters that requested account data from two users.

The identity of the accounts in question are redacted but the letters request data for at least two years of account activity, such as email headers and browsing history, for one user and the entire account history, an unknown time period, of another.

Banker said Twitter has notified the users in question and provided them copies of the national security letters, but that it would like to challenge the government’s transparency practices.

We continue to believe that reporting in government-mandated bands does not provide meaningful transparency to the public or those using our service. However, the government argues that any numerical reporting more detailed than the bands in the USA Freedom Act would be classified and as such not protected by the First Amendment. They further argue that Twitter is not entitled to obtain information from the government about the processes followed in classifying a version Twitter’s 2013 Transparency Report or in classifying/declassifying decisions associated with the allowed bands. We would like a meaningful opportunity to challenge government restrictions when “classification” prevents speech on issues of public importance.

Beyond transparency claims, a Reuters report indicates the FBI’s data requests from Twitter may be unconstitutional, according to privacy advocates. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Andrew Crocker told Reuters that preventing tech companies from publicly disclosing some government data requests is an ongoing problem.

“This is an ongoing practice and it is significantly beyond the scope of what is intended,” he said. The EFF is representing some of the companies challenging the constitutionality of national security letters which usually come with gag orders.

U.S. government data requests outpace other countries and continue to climb, causing friction with tech companies. Following the 2013 NSA leaks, tech companies became increasingly vocal about the breadth and scope of law enforcement and intelligence agencies’ requests for consumer data, advocating for more transparency.

In its blog post, Twitter commended Google and Yahoo for speaking out recently about national security letters, emphasizing companies’ desire to protect consumers’ privacy and how the company fought for transparency.

We’re encouraged by the lifting of these two gag orders and those recently disclosed by Cloudflare, Google, the Internet Archive, and Yahoo!. However,Twitter remains unsatisfied with restrictions on our right to speak more freely about national security requests we may receive. We continue to push for the legal ability to speak more openly on this topic in our lawsuit against the U.S. government, Twitter v. Lynch.