Will Twitter Comply With US Subpoena for Info on Icelandic MP?

Posted on January 8, 2011


The US Justice Department has issued a subpoena to the social networking site Twitter, for information about Icelandic Member of Parliament Birgitta Jonsdottir, past volunteer at Wikileaks.  She has been the main force behind Parliament’s passage of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative that supports creating legislation to make Iceland a legal haven for journalists and media outlets. [wired.com]

She was a supporter and colleague of Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks until rape charges were filed against him in Sweden.   At that time, she dropped the association.  She is only one of several volunteers at Wikileaks whose information has been subpoenaed. [boingboing.net]

The order sent to Twitter initially was signed under seal by U.S. Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan in Alexandria, Va. on December 14, and gave the social networking site three days to comply. But on Wednesday, she decided (PDF) that it should be unsealed and said that Twitter is now authorized to “disclose that order to its subscribers and customers,” presumably so they could choose to oppose it. (Salon.com posted a copy of the documents on Friday.)

The subpoena for information about Jonsdottir centers on the same period in which

Army Pfc. Bradley Manning is suspected of leaking the Army video to WikiLeaks earlier this year. In chats with former hacker Adrian Lamo, who turned him in to authorities, Manning indicated that he had first contacted WikiLeaks sometime in late November 2009. This corresponds with the time period mentioned in the government’s request for Jonsdottir’s tweet history. [wired.com]

Congress has made a legal attempt to protect privacy of individuals on the internet:

The federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) of 1986 was established in an attempt to give Fourth Amendment-type privacy protections to people for their Internet communications. In other words, Congress sought to protect people’s Internet privacy from warrantless intrusion. As some legal scholars have noted, however, the SCA has not been amended to keep up with the changing dynamics of the Internet. See, e.g., William Jeremy Robison, Free at What Cost?Cloud Computing Privacy Under the Stored Communications Act, 98 GEO. L.J. 1195, 1196 (2010). For example, one development that has raised concerns about the protections afforded by the SCA is the rise of social networking sites like Facebook. It is questionable whether and to what extent the SCA protects the privacy of users of social networking sites.

One court has addressed at least one aspect of the privacy concerns related to social networking sites. According to the district court for the Central District of California in Crispin v. Christian Audigier, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52832 (C.D. Cal. May 26, 2010), the SCA does protect the private communications of users of social networking sites against warrantless disclosure. [IP Log Blog]

Perhaps because of the California law cited above, in October 2010 Facebook revised and codified  its privacy policy in responding to subpoenas for information on individual users.  All subpoenas must be filed in California [NY Law blog]

Twitter is late to the privacy party to revise its policy for release of information under subpoena.  However, it did notify members of the Justice Department  subpoena to enable them to respond on their own. [WL central.org] NOTE link to subpoena text.

In all likelihood, Twitter will provide information on its members to Justice but individual members such as Jonsdottir, have begun opposition to the order. She has said:

I got the letter from Twitter a couple of hours ago, saying I got 10 days to stop it,” wrote Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament, in an e-mail. “Looking for legal ways to do it. Will be talking to lawyers from EFF tonight.”

EFF refers to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit civil liberties group in the United States. [wired]

History of federal and state privacy law in the US found here.