Barely two weeks after the New York District Attorney asked Twitter to hand over data about an Occupy Wall Street protester, the company says it will not comply with the request, at least for the time being.
The D.A.’s office had sent a subpoena to the microblogging service’s headquarters seeking information about the account belonging to Jeffrey Rae, one of several hundred activists arrested during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York on March 1.
Paul Mills, the attorney representing Rae, filed a motion to quash the subpoena on March 15 on the grounds that the request was in violation of California’s requirements for out-of-state subpoenas. Twitter’s legal department then informed the D.A.’s office that they would not comply with the request until the motion was resolved, Mills tells ReadWriteWeb.
Earlier this week, the D.A. offered Rae what’s known as an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal, which effectively lifts the subpoena and may lead to the charges being dropped all together.
“When I received the subpoena, I was pretty shocked,” says Rae. “The District Attorney was subpoenaing my Twitter account over small charges like disorderly conduct and blocking traffic.”
Curiously, most of the data authorities sought, like a copy of Rae’s tweets from within a certain range of dates, was already publicly available. This fact lead him to believe that the motion was made “purely for intimidation and harassment.”
Other information sought in the original request included his name, address, records of session times, the length of those sessions, which devices he used to access his Twitter account and any IP addresses from which he connected.
The New York District Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Where Social Media Meets Activism, a Legal Gray Area Emerges
This case illustrates something of a legal gray area that has emerged as social media has converged with political activism. As tools like Facebook and Twitter continue to play an increasingly prominent role in how demonstrations are organized and documented, exactly what types of information law enforcement has rightful access to remains unclear.
Before Jeffrey Rae, there was Malcom Harris. As he detailed for Reuters, Harris had his Twitter account subpoenaed for reasons related to his involvement in the Occupy Wall Street movement. As in Rae’s case, Harris’s lawyer filed a motion to have that subpoena quashed.
Similar requests for data from companies like Google and Twitter have been made in the ongoing U.S. investigation of Wikileaks as well. As incidents like this pile up, they continue to raise eyebrows among digital privacy advocates and civil libertarians.
For now, the threat of Rae having his Twitter data handed over to authorities is lifted. Despite the headaches caused by the affair, he says his level of commitment to the Occupy cause hasn’t changed. Last weekend, his Twitter stream buzzed with updates from the ground in Union Square in New York, where Occupy demonstrators began reconvening after a relatively quiet Winter.
“It’s nice knowing the subpoena is gone, if only because it’s one less thing to deal with,” says Rae. “I’ve been pretty active with Occupy from the beginning and something like this is not going to stop me from being involved.”