Top Menu

Twitter resists NYC prosecutors access to Occupy movement tweets

Twitter, the San Francisco microblogging online service, has filed papers in a New York court asking the court to quash a subpoena filed by the Manhattan district attorney. The DA’s office is asking Twitter to release to the prosecutor’s office several months’ worth of currently deleted tweets belong to Occupy protester Malcolm Harris. Harris was one of 700 activists who were arrested by NYPD on a October 1 march at the Brooklyn Bridge. The prosecution team was to go through Harris’ tweets weeks before and a few months after the march. The prosecution is saying that the tweets during the specified time frame will demonstrate whether Harris, the managing editor of the online magazine The New Inquiry, was aware of the fact that the police had told demonstrators not to march across the landmark Brooklyn Bridge.

Harris already tried to quash the subpoena but lost out on an interesting legal ground. The New York judge who handled his motion said that Harris did not have the legal standing to quash the subpoena because he did not technically own the tweets he sent. According to the judge’s ruling, the owner of the tweets is Twitter. The judge said that the moment Harris posted his short messages, ownership of the text went to Twitter. Consequently, any constitutional protection Harris may have had over his personal communication’s disclosure was lost. The court ruled that the Fourth Amendment protection for physical homes did not extend to the Internet since “we do not have a physical ‘home’ on the Internet.” The court also reasoned that since Twitter’s terms allowed the service to redistribute the tweets to anyone in any manner it chose, Harris did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Twitter’s own motion to quash revolved around the technical issue of how the court understood how Twitter works. Twitter’s legal team is arguing that Twitter users like Harris don’t give up their ownership to the materials they store at the online service. Also, they argued that a federal statue, the Stored Communications Act, expressly gave the users of online services like Twitter the right to opposed demands for their account data and other records. They also cited recent case law that requires law enforcement entities to get search warrants before requesting access to online records.