By J. DeVoy
A common feature of criminal and civil actions against unknown defendants is the need for subpoenas, warrants, or other court orders to ascertain John (or Jane) Doe’s true identity. For a long time, these have gone unchallenged by companies seeking to mind their own business, avoid the cost and consequences of litigation – or taking a position in general – and the burden of self-defense has fallen onto individual speakers. Twitter, however, is one of few firms to stand up for its users.
In civil cases, subpoenas to entities with identifying information such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft (hotmail) and other sites with users’ real names and contact data can result in the notification of a targeted user. When Google receives a subpoena for information about a gmail or blogger user, Google can inform him or her that it has received a subpoena for his or her information. This allows the targeted individual to file a motion to quash the subpoena in the district from which it originates, preserving his or her anonymity.
In criminal matters, though, court orders for this data is often accompanied by a gag order. Because of the more pressing concerns entailed in criminal matters, the concern is that any notification to the target may compromise the investigation. As a result, the gag order keeps the court order’s recipient from telling the target that it has received a legal request for his or her information.
Recently, Twitter was contacted by federal authorities seeking information about a variety of users connected to Wikileaks, including founder Julian Assange, accused leaker Pfc. Bradley Manning, ex-WikiLeaks spokeswoman Birgitta Jonsdottir and WikiLeaks activist Jacob Appelbaum. This order for information was accompanied by an above-described gag order, which Twitter challenged. Twitter won. This victory enabled twitter to inform individual speakers about the government’s orders for information and move to quash them on their own.
While Twitter could have moved to quash the orders in tis own, this is still a victory for the WikiLeaks crowd. In an environment where Bank of America, Visa, Mastercard and PayPal have turned against them, Twitter did something to protect their interests. Even if this legal intervention is saved for special occasions, Twitter’s willingness to step into the legal arena is heartening — especially for an unprofitable service.