Twitter files appeal in major social media case

August 28, 2012

A Twitter account tied to an Occupy Wall Street protestor is at the center of an ongoing court fight to define individuals’ rights in their social media accounts. On Monday, Twitter described its role as a  “voice of liberty around the globe” and filed an appeal to argue that user tweets can be private.

The case turns on the Twitter account of Malcolm Harris who was arrested while walking on the Brooklyn Bridge during a 2011 protest. Early this year, prosecutors issued subpoenas demanding that Twitter turn over information for two names associated with Harris: “@destructuremal” and “@getsworse.” Twitter responded by telling Harris about the subpoenas who then asked a court to quash them.

In an April ruling that raised eyebrows in legal circles, Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. found that Harris couldn’t sue because his tweets belonged to Twitter. The judge also flashed his familiarity with social media by writing that  “the motion to “#quash” was “#denied.” (The judge has been disciplined in the past for trying to friend lawyers on Facebook).

Sciarrino Jr. then rejected Twitter’s own efforts to quash the subpoena. He ruled that  Harris had no privacy rights in his tweets on the grounds that Twitter is like shouting on the street where everyone can hear. He added “the street is an online, information superhighway, and the witnesses can be the third party providers like Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, Pinterest.”

Twitter announced weeks ago that it would appeal and today filed its arguments. The filing, which can be seen here, notes that Twitter has been a tool of freedom in places like Iran and China, and argues that users do have privacy rights in their Twitter accounts.

Here are some key arguments from Twitter’s appeal:

• Twitter users have a property right in the content they post (citing a case in which a photographer posted a Haiti earthquake photo to Twitter)

• Twitter users should have the same right to challenge subpoenas as Gmail users

• Twitter users have a Fourth Amendment privacy right in their accounts

• The judge made an error by ruling that all of Harris’ tweets, including the deleted ones, were public:

“It simply cannot be the case that a Tweet that is no longer available or is deleted mere seconds after it was posted is unprotected by the Federal or New York Constitutions, but an email sent to a group of people and  never deleted can only be obtained with a search warrant.”

The ACLU has filed a brief to support Twitter’s appeal. In a statement, ACLU attorney Aden Fine, said “Under the First and Fourth Amendments, we have the right to speak freely on the Internet, safe in the knowledge that the government can’t get information about our speech without a warrant and without satisfying First Amendment scrutiny.

Harris’ criminal trial is set for December 12 but is unlikely to go forward before the New York Supreme Court rules on Twitter’s appeal.

(c) 2012, GigaOM.com.

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