The ongoing saga over one Occupy Wall Street protestor's Twitter data is about to get even more serious. Malcolm Harris, one of over 700 demonstrators arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge last year, was fighting the New York District Attorney's request for the data when a Manhattan judge ruled in July that Twitter had to hand it over. Today, the same judge threatened to hold the company in contempt of court and issue fines if it doesn't comply with the ruling by this Friday.
Twitter is being asked to supply the D.A.'s office with more than three months' worth of tweets and other data from Harris's account. The information, which includes some non-public information like IP addresses and possibly location data, is being sought to counter the protestor's version of events as they unfolded on October 1, 2011. It was on that day that police arrested hundreds of demonstrators as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris and other protestors claim that police led the marchers onto the bridge before arresting them, an assertion that prosecutors hope to counter using Harris's own tweets.
In March, the D.A. subpoenaed Twitter for similar data about Jeffrey Rae, another activist arrested that day. In that case, the data requested included Rae's name, address, records of session times, the length of those sessions, the types of devices used by Rae to access Twitter and any IP addresses from which he connected. Rae's lawyer succeeded in reaching an agreement with prosecutors that effectively quashed the subpoena, but Harris's legal battle has continued.
The whole affair highlights a grey area where activism, social media and the law all intersect. The digital age has fundamentally changed how people communicate and store information about their whereabouts and activities, but the law is still adapting to this reality. Once upon a time, the definition of the "unreasonable searches and seizures" banned by the Fourth Amendment was a relatively clear cut, modified periodically by court rulings. The rise of smartphones, social networks and a wide range of cloud-hosted services for consumers have turned much of that on its head, upending the established definition of privacy and the balance of rights between citizens and the government.
Challenging Twitter's Commitment to Free Speech
For its part, Twitter has done its best to stand on the side of free speech and user privacy, even in the face of a rising tide of government requests for user data. In a profile of the company's chief lawyer Alexander MacGillivray last weekend, the New York Times outlined how Twitter tries to set itself apart from other tech companies by aggressively protecting its users' privacy.
In its quest to protect user privacy, Twitter is not always successful. Last November, the company was ordered by a Virginia court to hand over account data for Wikileaks supporter and Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum. The government sought data on Appelbaum from a number of tech companies, including Google and Sonic.net, a privacy-friendly ISP based in California. In another Occupy-related case, Twitter was forced to hand over one user's data to authorities in Boston after a three-month legal battle.
In case after case, Twitter has initially refused to hand over Occupy Wall Street data to authorities, more often siding with defendants than with the government. The company views protection of free speech as a valuable strategic asset. Today's legal nudge from Manhattan will serve as yet another test of Twitter's dedication to those principles. As in other recent cases, the company may ultimately have no choice but to hand over the data, despite its request for a stay.
Lead photo by David Shankbone.