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Twitter must hand over OWS user data

Malcolm Harris was one of 700 Occupy Wall Street protestors arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge on 1 October 2011. The protestors claim that they were ’enticed’ onto the bridge by the police and then arrested. District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. subsequently subpoenaed Harris’ Twitter posts from Sept. 15 to Dec. 30 and user information linked to his account, apparently in the belief that they would demonstrate a prior intent to enter the bridge.

Harris and Twitter separately sought to have the subpoena quashed. Harris’ attempt was overruled by the judge stating he had ‘no standing’ in the case. Twitter claimed this could not be so, since its terms and conditions made it clear that tweets belong to their author and not to Twitter.

On 30 June, judge Sciarrino ruled that Twitter must hand over the requested data. Twitter asked for a stay of enforcement while it appealed the decision, but that request was denied on 7 September. Now the judge has given Twitter until Friday to hand over the data. “I can’t put Twitter or the little blue bird in jail, so the only way to punish is monetarily,” he said. Twitter’s option is now to comply with the subpoena or provide the judge with earnings statements for the last two years so that he can decide on the scope of a fine.

Twitter has a history of fighting for the privacy of its users. Earlier this month its top lawyer Alexander Macgillivray explained, “We value the reputation we have for defending and respecting the user’s voice. We think it’s important to our company and the way users think about whether to use Twitter, as compared to other services.”

But it doesn’t always get it right. Last month it suspended the account of UK journalist Guy Adams who had been criticizing NBC’s Olympics coverage (NBC is a corporate partner of Twitter). The actual reason, said Twitter, was because he had disclosed an NBC executive’s email address in contravention of its terms of service. After mass protests (on Twitter), Macgillivray overturned the suspension and apologized. “We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is,” he said.

Anything less would have weakened his arguments in the Harris case.

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