updated 05:23 pm EDT, Mon July 2, 2012
Twitter maintains users own their own data
A judge in New York has ruled that Twitter must release three months of data from the account of a user currently under prosecution for disorderly conduct. As The Wall Street Journal reports,Twitter has been fighting against the release of the user's information, claiming that to do so would violate the site's terms of service. The microblogging site's challenges have been turned back, however, in a decision that could set a precedent regarding the admissibility of data relating to statements made on the Internet.
The user in question, Malcolm Harris, is on trial for alleged disorderly conduct during the Occupy Wall Street protests of last year. Harris was among 700 protesters arrested while demonstrating on the Brooklyn Bridge. In taking to the roadway along the bridge, prosecutors maintain, Harris and other protesters disobeyed police orders: a minor criminal offense, but one they are prosecuting nonetheless.
The district attorney's office subpoenaed Harris' tweets in January, arguing that those posts would disprove Harris' expected defense that he and other protesters were led onto the roadway by police. The prosecutors sought to gain access to the posts, which were no longer publicly available, directly from Twitter, but the company rebuffed the attorneys and alerted Harris to their request. The American Civil Liberties Union filed an amicus brief contending that a search warrant was necessary to acquire such posts and that the person of interest should be able to challenge such a warrant in court.
The presiding judge, though, ruled that the tweets in question constituted public statements and should therefore be turned over. "What you give to the public," wrote Judge Sciarrino in his decision, "belongs to the public."
Spokespersons for Twitter have expressed their disappointment with the ruling, claiming that users own the content they post and that the site should not be compelled to turn over such data. Despite their victory, prosecutors will have to secure a search warrant for at least some data: the last date they are requesting falls within 180 days from the ruling.
In a blog post today, the ACLU lamented the decision, saying that it gives the government undue access to a person's Internet activities, including geographic locations over time, date and duration information on Internet sessions, and data on a user's means of access to sites.