Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Death by a thousand cuts?

Last week Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino, Jr. ordered Twitter to hand over three months worth of Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris' tweets and his personal information. Mr. Harris was one of hundreds arrested for holding a protest on the Brooklyn Bridge last October.

Manhattan prosecutors allege that Mr. Harris' tweets during that period belie his contention that he thought the group had police permission to march across the bridge. The tweets, of course, were deleted after the fact.

In his ruling, Judge Sciarrino declared that Mr. Harris had no standing to challenge the district attorney's subpoena for the records as the information was held by Twitter. In the past Twitter has argued that the individual tweeter "owned" the information and had standing to challenge any government requests for the records.

Now Twitter may find itself in the position of being forced to challenge each and every one of those requests itself. If that's the case, just how much longer can Twitter fend off government requests for user information? At what point does it become too expensive to stand up for principle?

But maybe that's the price that is to be paid for the one social media providers that has refused to bend over and grab its ankles when the government comes calling for records. Other firms have opened their doors wide open whenever someone wearing a dark suit, sunglasses and an earpiece comes a-knocking asking for user records. Twitter has been alone in standing up to the government in its attempts to data-mine user information.

So, if you can't get what you want, just make it so damn expensive and inconvenient that that other side finally just says "here, come and get it." That's what the government's strategy is. And that's something that should worry us all.

Because it's not just the content of the tweets that's at issue. It's something that many people still have a hard time coming to grips with in our social media age - once it's online, it's out there for all to see and it doesn't go away. But it's more than just a case of wishing you hadn't tweeted something - it's about the user's personal information, followers, IP addresses and locations.

Maybe you lost your ability to keep your tweets to yourself when you hit that send button, but did the people who follow you lose their freedom of assembly? Does the government have any business digging around to figure out where you were when you sent that tweet? Does the government have any business knowing whose computer you were using?

When Matthew Harris hit that send button, his tweets became as much a part of the public record as if he had stood on a soapbox and spoken through a bullhorn. But that doesn't mean his followers gave up their right to be left alone by the government.

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