WikiLeaks, free speech and Twitter come together in Va. court case
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 12:00 AM
An odd confluence of important issues came together in a federal courtroom in Alexandria on Tuesday: the criminal investigation of WikiLeaks, free speech and social networking.
It all stemmed from the government's attempts to get personal information from the Twitter accounts of three people linked to the WikiLeaks probe. Their lawyers argued that the data - screen names, mailing addresses, telephone numbers, credit card and bank account information, and Internet protocol addresses - are protected by the First Amendment. Prosecutors said the request is a routine part of their criminal probe.
It was the opening salvo in what experts expect to be a long and difficult investigation of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and others suspected of disclosing thousands of classified documents on the anti-secrecy Web site.
Tuesday's arguments went to the heart of a larger debate about WikiLeaks - whether the posting of the documents was free speech or a violation of national security. They also provided a high-profile test of outdated rules about what data the government can seize in the new world of social networking.
In the courtroom, John Keker, a lawyer representing one of the Twitter clients, said the users' data would give the government a map of people tied to WikiLeaks and essentially halt free speech online. He noted how social networking sites have been used in Egypt and Tunisia, where citizens have pushed for government changes, and suggested that such a broad request by the U.S. government in this case would put a stop to that.
John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor not associated with the case, said the government is using 18th-century arguments with 21st-century technology.
"These are not new arguments, but they're being used in a really interesting and important way that has a twist to them in light of social media," he said.
New details of probe
Until now, there has been little public evidence of the government's criminal investigation of WikiLeaks, a probe Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced in late November.
Information began to come out last week after U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan granted a motion from the three Twitter clients to unseal some filings in the case. Tuesday's hearing was the first public debate in the criminal investigation of Assange and others.
Court documents reveal that the government has asked for personal Twitter information from Assange; Bradley Manning, the Army private who is suspected of supplying classified material to the Web site; Birgitta Jonsdottir, a former WikiLeaks activist who is also a member of Iceland's Parliament; and two computer programmers, Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch citizen, and Jacob Appelbaum, an American.
On Tuesday, defense lawyers tried to convince Buchanan that she should overturn her December ruling that ordered Twitter to disclose its clients' data, as well as unseal documents in the case, including requests from prosecutors to get information from other technology companies.
Aden Fine, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who represents Jonsdottir, said that his client and the two others apparently have been "swept up into the government's investigation of WikiLeaks" and that the government's requests shouldn't be granted, nor should it be done using sealed documents.