from the tiny-win-in-the-margins dept
All the way back in 2014, Twitter sued the DOJ over its National Security Letter reporting restrictions. NSLs are the FBI’s weapon of choice in all sorts of investigations. And they almost exclusively come packaged with lifetime bans on discussing them publicly or disclosing the government’s request for info to NSL targets.
Things changed a little with the passage of the USA Freedom Act and a couple of related court decisions. The DOJ is now required to periodically review NSLs to see if the ongoing silence is justified. The Act also finally provided a way for companies to challenge gag orders, which has resulted in a somewhat steady stream of published NSLs.
What’s still forbidden is publishing an actual count of NSLs a company has received. Supposedly the security of the nation would be threatened if Twitter said it had received 118 NSLs last year, rather than “0-499.” The reforms in the USA Freedom Act didn’t change that aspect of NSL reporting and the government still argues any accurate reporting would allow the terrorists to win… or somehow avoid being targeted by an NSL.
Twitter argued the publication of an accurate number was protected speech. The government, of course, argued the opposite. The federal judge handling the case ruled that accurate reporting wasn’t protected speech back in 2016, but did say Twitter could move forward with its challenge of the classification of this data.
Roughly a year later, the court changed its mind. The government’s motion to dismiss was denied by the court, which said it needed to come up with better arguments if it wanted to escape Twitter’s lawsuit. The court pointed out that denying Twitter the right to accurately report NSLs was a content-based restriction that couldn’t be justified by the government’s bare bones assertions about national security.
Nearly three years later, we’re back to where we were four years ago. The court has dismissed Twitter’s lawsuit, denying its attempt to escape the “banding” restrictions that limit the transparency it can provide to its users. (via Politico)
The decision [PDF] — which ends nearly six years of litigation — says the court believes the things the government says about detailed NSL reporting. Since these declarations tend to be delivered in ex parte hearings and/or under seal, we have to believe them, too. Actual numbers are more dangerous than vague numbers.
The declarations explain the gravity of the risks inherent in disclosure of the information that the Government has prohibited Twitter from stating in its Draft Transparency Report, including a sufficiently specific explanation of the reasons disclosure of mere aggregate numbers, even years after the relevant time period in the Draft Transparency Report, could be expected to give rise to grave or imminent harm to the national security. The Court finds that the declarations contain sufficient factual detail to justify the Government’s classification of the aggregate information in Twitter’s 2014 Draft Transparency Report on the grounds that the information would be likely to lead to grave or imminent harm to the national security, and that no more narrow tailoring of the restrictions can be made.
And that’s it. The restrictions stay in place and recipients of NSLs will only be able to deliver government-approved information about them. The good news is there’s a bit of a loophole — one the court discusses in a footnote. The DOJ may want to restrict almost all NSL reporting, but the court isn’t convinced companies can be limited to using the DOJ-approved “bands” only.
The [complaint] alleges a facial constitutional challenge to FISA’s secrecy provisions to the extent they categorically prohibit the reporting of aggregate data. The Court does not find that they do so restrict the aggregate data at issue here. The Government has, in part, argued that FISA’s statutory nondisclosure provisions, applicable to the existence and contents of individual orders, logically prohibit reporting of aggregate data about the number of such orders. The Court has never found the Government’s logic persuasive on this point. The requirement not to disclose a particular order is completely distinct from disclosing the aggregate number of orders.
This seems to say companies can accurately report the total number of NSLs they’ve received, rather than using the far more vague 0-499, etc. reporting they’ve been limited to. It’s not a lot but it’s an improvement.