Twitter has filed lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) over what it claims are unconstitutional restrictions. The company wants the ability to disclose to users what surveillance requests have been made by the government.
In the lawsuit, filed in California on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, the company argues that the restrictions prohibit the company from providing the transparency, which includes government requests, that should be offered to their users. The lawsuit can be seen as adding a bit of fuel to the fire around the burning issue of privacy, as the government has long been allowed access to track individual usage of the Internet as part of the war on terror.
Technology firms such as Skype, Google and Twitter have attempted to resist handing over user data, such as email and chat transcripts, but must do so when ordered by the courts. The policy, which also prevents firms such as Microsoft and Facebook from disclosing government requests, is seen as a breach of the First Amendment right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Twitter states that the policy prevents them from responding to users’ concerns and speaking about government surveillance, even if no requests have been made. The U.S government has not yet responded directly to the lawsuit that filed against the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but it has already said that the only information that will be published is the total number of requests that have been made annually. They have allowed other tech companies to provide a broad category of unspecific information as long as national security is protected.
Whether it is perceived or real, there appears to be a battle brewing that involves the federal agencies, champions of free speech, and the technology companies and service providers on the Internet. The tech companies appear to be aligning themselves with the free speech champions and are making efforts to clarify their relationships with U.S. law agencies. However, the picture is still not clear. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange recently stated in an interview that there is a tight link between Google and the National Security Agency (NSA) as far as the collection of user data is concerned. He described Google as being part of the industrial base that actually enables the NSA, because they are also involved in selling search services to the agency.
The Internet is still in its infancy, and although rapidly unfolding as an experiment, there are several critical issues that should be resolved, and privacy is at the top of the list. Twitter’s action has been lauded by the American Civil Liberties Union, which appears to be against secrecy and gag orders, but at the same time, web users clamor for privacy. Twitter also claims that they should not be subject to the same restrictions that other companies, such as Google and other tech companies, must abide.
As Twitter files suits against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Justice Department, there do not appear to be any easy solutions to the conundrums of privacy, security and regulation of the web, in terms of data being amassed. Even Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt has expressed fears that the government may take the Internet away. The fact that he has expressed fears can also be seen as indirect acknowledgement that there are some problems. To others, it appears that a free and open Internet was conceived in naiveté, and some sort of controls may be necessary.
Opinion by Dale Davidson
The Globe and Mail