Twitter seeks to disclose more about government data requests

Twitter said Thursday that it is pressing the Justice Department for permission to disclose more information about government data requests on its customers.

The company said that if it does not get approval, it will consider taking legal action to tell the public more specifically how many court orders and subpoenas it receives from the National Security Agency and other law enforcement authorities.

“The ball is in the DOJ’s court,” a Twitter employee said. “We’ve been in discussion with the DOJ and have told them we think of this as a First Amendment issue and that our users currently aren’t given information about data demands that provides context and clarity.”

Twitter currently has to lump all of the government’s data requests into the same category in its transparency report, so a demand from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court is put in the same category as a local police request. And it can’t break down how many users’ accounts are affected by a single complaint.

In its biannual transparency report released Thursday, the company revealed that the overwhelming majority of data requests come from U.S. officials. In the final six months of 2013, U.S. government officials made 833 requests for information. Twitter said it complied with 69 of them.

The Japanese government was second in requests, asking for user data 213 times.

Twitter was not included in a recent Justice Department settlement with tech and telecom giants including Google, Facebook and Microsoft that allowed the firms for the first time to disclose in broad ranges how many secret orders they receive from the FISA court. The companies sued the Justice Department after revelations in leaked documents supplied by former NSA consultant Edward Snowden exposed a broad surveillance program of U.S. Internet and telecom firms.

The NSA’s surveillance program did not include Twitter, but the firm has criticized the NSA’s secretive data demands. Chief executive Dick Costolo has joined other industry executives in negotiations with the White House to reform the NSA program.

“For the disclosure of national security requests to be meaningful to our users, it must be within a range that provides sufficient precision to be meaningful,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager for global legal policy, wrote in a blog post. “Allowing Twitter, or any other similarly situated company, to only disclose national security requests within an overly broad range seriously undermines the objective of transparency.”

Twitter said the new disclosures permitted to other tech companies still fall short of the detail they want to provide.

Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft and Facebook released ranges from zero to 1,000 for the number of national security letters and FISA court demands they get.

“These are still really broad ranges, and, really, there’s a big difference between one and 999. We also want to be able to say when we don’t receive any requests at all,” said the Twitter employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Follow The Post’s new tech blog, The Switch, where technology and policy connect.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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