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Twitter Ordered To Hand Over Wikileaks Data

March 12, 2011

A US judge ruled Friday that prosecutors can order Twitter to hand over account information of certain users who were associated with Wikileaks, rejecting arguments the move would violate their rights to privacy and free speech.

The accounts in question belong to Icelandic lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir, US computer researcher Jacob Appelbaum, and Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch volunteer for Wikileaks.

The Twitter account holders targeted by President Barack Obama’s administration had asked the judge to reverse an earlier ruling that required Twitter to hand over the information to prosecutors. They argued that the government’s request amounted to an unconstitutional violation of their freedom of speech and association.

But in Friday’s ruling, US Magistrate Judge Theresa Carroll Buchanan said the government’s request was reasonable and did nothing to obstruct Twitter users’ rights to free speech.

“The Twitter order does not seek to control or direct the content of petitioners’ speech or association,” Judge Buchanan wrote.

“The freedom of association does not shield members from cooperating with legitimate government investigations,” she said.

She said that they “already made their Twitter posts and associations publicly available” and voluntarily provided information to Twitter following the website’s privacy policy.

The judge also dismissed the argument that the order violated the account holders’ Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects people against “unreasonable” searches.

The Twitter users “voluntarily conveyed their IP addresses to the Twitter website, thus exposing the information to a third party administrator, and thereby relinquishing any reasonable expectation of privacy,” Judge Buchanan said.

Wikileaks fiercely criticized the order and said the Twitter users never worked for the site. It did say, however, that two of them helped make public a video that showed a 2007 US helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed several people.

Lawyers for the Twitter users, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, had previously said they would appeal any unfavorable ruling from the magistrate to a trial judge.

A federal law known as the Stored Communications Act allows prosecutors to obtain electronic data without a search warrant or probable cause. Instead, the government must only show that it has reasonable belief that the records that it seeks are relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Prosecutors said the law is used routinely in criminal investigations, and that the Wikileaks investigation is no different from any other criminal probe.

Judge Buchanan’s order does not seek for the content of the tweets themselves, which are already publicly circulated. Instead it is seeking certain “non-content” information, like billing records and IP addresses associated with their accounts.

The original order issued by Judge Buchanan in December 2010 at prosecutors’ request sought account information from Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and PFC Bradley Manning, who allegedly leaked secret documents to Wikileaks.

Buchanan also rejected a request requiring the government to disclose whether it sought similar records from other social networking sites.

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