September 16, 2012
Twitter Hands Over Messages In Occupy Wall Street Case
redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online
Much to the chagrin of online privacy advocates, Twitter has surrendered messages written by an Occupy Wall Street protester to a New York criminal court judge.
More than three months´ worth of messages had been sought by the Manhattan district attorney's office in the trial of 23-year-old Malcolm Harris, one of approximately 700 protestors arrested during a mass protest that took place on the Brooklyn Bridge last October. He is charged with obstructing traffic -- charges he has pleaded not guilty to.
Twitter representatives had initially resisted handing over the posts, many of which are no longer available online, but faced contempt of court charges had they not provided them to Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino by September 14, according to BBC News reports. Had they refused to cooperate, they likely would have faced "substantial fines."
The district attorney's office was reportedly seeking the Twitter posts in order to counteract Harris' claims that New York police officers led members of the Occupy Wall Street movement to the bridge in order to have an easier time arresting them. They believe that the messages will demonstrate that Harris had disregarded their orders prior to his arrest, the British news organization said.
The messages will remain sealed pending an appeal by Harris' legal team. Nonetheless, the issue had drawn the attention of several privacy advocate groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who "are concerned the ruling could set a precedent putting the onus on social media companies to try to protect their users from criminal prosecution," explained Reuters reporter Joseph Ax.
Twitter had asked Sciarrino to extend the deadline until after Harris' appeal was heard by a higher court later this week, but that request was denied. Nonetheless, the judge urged the appeals court to "decide the case on the merits" and not allow the fact that the posts had been handed over to the court to sway their decision. He said that the decision regarding the privacy and free speech aspects surrounding the possible subpoenaing of social networking content was "a more important issue than maybe the trial itself."
In a statement, Naomi Gilens, Legal Administrative Assistant of the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project said that it was "disappointing" that Twitter had to hand over the content, adding that the social network "should never have even had to get involved in this case at all--and it wouldn´t have, if the court hadn´t ruled that Harris did not have standing to protect his own constitutional rights."
The court ruled that Harris had "forfeited those rights by using a third-party Internet service (i.e., Twitter)" -- an assertion that the ACLU strongly denies, according to Gilens. "As we explained in our friend-of-the-court brief supporting Twitter´s appeal, that ruling is contradicted by decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court and countless courts around the country, which make clear that individuals whose constitutional rights are implicated by government requests to third parties have standing to challenge those requests."
"Putting Twitter between a rock (turn the data over without a warrant) and a hard place (be held in contempt of court and face a potentially expensive fine) before the complicated legal issues at stake have been resolved by the appeals court is a miscarriage of justice," the EFF's Hanni Fakhoury added in a separate statement. "At a time when companies need to feel empowered to stand up for user privacy, Judge Sciarrino's actions have made it difficult for Twitter to do that. We urge companies not to falter in the face of this setback, and continue to fight for the users."