Ben Lee, vice president of Twitter's legal department, took to the Twitter blog on Tuesday to reveal that the company is suing the U.S. Government (pdf) in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. The news follows the company's transparency report released back in July, which did not reveal the real size of the U.S. government's surveillance of Twitter users.
"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. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges," Lee said.
According to the complaint, the government "engages in extensive but incomplete speech" regarding the actual size of its activities as they pertain to communications providers in the United States. Meanwhile, service providers like Twitter are not allowed to provide their own "informed perspective as potential recipients of various national security-related requests."
The lawsuit seems centered around a draft Transparency Report that was submitted to the government around April 1, 2014. Five months after the submittal, the government said that the document contained classified information that cannot be publicly released. Why? Because releasing this information does not comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The complaint filed in the California court alleges that the government forces Twitter to engage in preapproved speech or forces the social network to refrain from speaking altogether. The complaint also states that discussions of the actual surveillance on Twitter is being "unconstitutionally restricted."
"In fact, the U.S. government has taken the position that service providers like Twitter are even prohibited from saying that they have received zero national security requests, or zero of a particular type of national security request," the complaint said.
Lee said that Twitter has been in negotiations with the government to be more transparent, but so far those attempts have failed. "After many months of discussions, we were unable to convince them to allow us to publish even a redacted version of the report," he wrote, referring to the April document.
Should all service providers have the right of full disclosure in their Transparency Reports? Is there a violation of the First Amendment here? Is the government right in forcing service providers to withhold certain information? Lee commented that this is an important issue for anyone who believes in a strong First Amendment.