Twitter sues U.S. government over national security data

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Twitter is suing the U.S. government in an effort to loosen restrictions on what the social media giant can say publicly about the national security-related requests it receives for user data.

The company filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department on Monday in a federal court in northern California, arguing that its First Amendment rights are being violated by restrictions that forbid the disclosure of how many national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court orders it receives — even if that number is zero.

Twitter vice president Ben Lee wrote in a blog post that it’s suing in an effort to publish the full version of a “transparency report” prepared this year that includes those details.

The San Francisco-based firm was unsatisfied with the Justice Department’s move in January to allow technological firms to disclose the number of national security-related requests they receive in broad ranges.

“It’s our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance — including what types of legal process have not been received,” Lee wrote. “We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges.”

But a Justice Department spokeswoman pointed to the January move — which was aimed at mollifying complaints from tech giants like Google and Microsoft — as evidence that the government is allowing the release of at least some information on its surveillance activities.

“Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies,” department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said. “There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information on government requests while also protecting national security.”

Critics of the U.S. government’s secrecy surrounding its national security surveillance activities lauded Twitter’s move.

Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, said “challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders” was the right move, and he urged other tech firms to follow Twitter’s lead.

“If these laws prohibit Twitter from disclosing basic information about government surveillance, then these laws violate the First Amendment,” Jaffer said. “The Constitution doesn’t permit the government to impose so broad a prohibition on the publication of truthful speech about government conduct.”