WASHINGTON (AFP) – Twitter sued the US government Tuesday, claiming its free speech rights are being violated by restrictions on its ability to disclose numbers of secret orders to hand over user data.
The lawsuit filed in California steps up the battle between the tech sector and US authorities over how much information may be disclosed about vast electronic surveillance in the name of national security.
“It’s our belief that we are entitled under the (US constitution’s) First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of US government officials by providing information about the scope of US government surveillance – including what types of legal process have not been received,” Twitter vice president Benjamin Lee said in a blog post.
“We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.”
Lee said the FBI and Justice Department have refused to allow Twitter to publish any specific numbers in its “transparency report” other than the ranges agreed upon with several other tech firms.
The accord with five major tech companies allows the publication of requests in a range such as zero to 999, or 1,000 to 1,999.
But Twitter, which was not among the five companies in the agreement, said it is not permitted to say whether it has not received any requests from the FBI or secret court.
The lawsuit says the US Justice Department and FBI have blocked efforts by Twitter to disclose specific numbers of FBI “national security letters” which require it to hand over user data, and orders from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
“We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail,” Lee said.
“In April, we provided a draft Transparency Report addendum to the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a report which we hoped would provide meaningful transparency for our users. After many months of discussions, we were unable to convince them to allow us to publish even a redacted version of the report.”
The lawsuit said the secrecy provisions are unconstitutional because they are “in violation of Twitter’s right to speak about truthful matters of public concern”.