Twitter Reveals Two National Security Letters After Gag Orders Lifted; Rightly Complains About Gag Orders
from the first-amendment? dept
In the last few months, we've seen multiple internet companies finally able to reveal National Security Letters (NSLs) they had received from the Justice Department, demanding information from the companies, while simultaneously saddling those companies with gag orders, forbidding them to speak about the orders. It started last June, when Yahoo was the first company to publicly acknowledge such an NSL. In December, Google revealed 8 NSLs around the same time that the Internet Archive was able to reveal it had received an NSL as well. Earlier this month, Cloudflare was finally able to reveal the NSL it had received (which a Senate staffer had told the company was impossible -- and the company's top lawyer was bound by the gag order, unable to correct that staffer).
And now we can add Twitter to the list. On Friday, the company announced that the gag order on two NSLs had been lifted. There's one from 2015 and another from June of last year. Twitter appears relieved that it's finally able to reveal these, but quite frustrated that it was gagged at all.
If you don't recall, Twitter has been much more aggressive than basically all of the other tech companies in challenging these gag orders. Back in 2014, Twitter sued the government, claiming it was a First Amendment violation to enforce these gag orders. That was after most of the other major internet companies had come to an agreement over how and when they could report such requests. Twitter, thankfully, felt that the agreement between the DOJ and internet companies was way too stifling and has fought it:
Twitter remains unsatisfied with restrictions on our right to speak more freely about national security requests we may receive. We continue to push for the legal ability to speak more openly on this topic in our lawsuit against the U.S. government, Twitter v. Lynch.
We continue to believe that reporting in government-mandated bands does not provide meaningful transparency to the public or those using our service. However, the government argues that any numerical reporting more detailed than the bands in the USA Freedom Act would be classified and as such not protected by the First Amendment. They further argue that Twitter is not entitled to obtain information from the government about the processes followed in classifying a version Twitter’s 2013 Transparency Report or in classifying/declassifying decisions associated with the allowed bands. We would like a meaningful opportunity to challenge government restrictions when “classification” prevents speech on issues of public importance.
Our next hearing in the Lynch case is scheduled for February 14, 2017. Concurrently, Twitter is using the statutory means provided in the USA Freedom Act to seek more transparency into similar NSL requests, and will provide updates as they become available.
That last paragraph makes it fairly clear (though it should have been obvious) that Twitter is still gagged on more NSLs. And that's kind of a key thing in all of these recent "releases" of NSLs. They're only released when the government lifts the gag orders on them -- and that's very troubling. There is a long history in this country of the government abusing its powers to spy on the public. If it alone gets to decide when to reveal the nature of its surveillance efforts, then the public really has no insight or understanding into just how widespread the practice might be.
And the most ridiculous thing in all of this is that it's hard to fathom any actual justification for this kind of thing. Yes, you can understand not necessarily revealing an ongoing investigation into a crime, but the gag orders go much further, barring companies from even admitting how many NSLs they receive. It's hard to see how revealing that kind of information -- in any way -- compromises law enforcement or intelligence investigations. The only thing it serves to do is to hide from the public the scale of the surveillance.