Pando

Twitter sues the Justice Department for the right to be honest with consumers

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 8, 2014

From The News Desk

Twitter has sued the Justice Department in the latest and most drastic of the technology industry's attempts to gain the right to refute allegations made against companies like Google, Apple, and others as part of the revelation of National Security Agency surveillance programs.

The suit is seeking an increase to the amount of information companies are allowed to share with the public about government data requests. Companies are currently limited to revealing a small amount of information that applies to all of their users; Twitter and others want to be allowed to disclose more information and tell specific users when their data has been requested.

Some companies have attempted to subvert government limitations on what they're allowed to disclose by adding so-called "warrant canaries" -- language that can be removed when it ceases to be true, creating an indirect disclosure of information the government tries to keep from the public -- to transparency reports. The problems with that solution: it's hard to identify warrant canaries, and even harder to know what the removal of one from a transparency report means.

Others have appealed to the public's desire to learn more about government data requests by making it clear that some information isn't allowed to be published in these not-so-transparent reports, like Google did when it added a blacked-out section to one of its reports last November:

In keeping with the government’s strict control over the types and amount of data tech companies are allowed to disclose, Google devoted a section of the report to a graphic displaying a few yellow bars covered with the thick, black lines used by the government’s censors. It’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to Google’s continued fight for the right to disclose such data; it’s also the latest example of the limitations imposed on these so-called transparency reports.
These companies are desperate to reveal more information about government data requests not because they wish to be transparent -- idealism doesn't get you very far in Silicon Valley -- but because their global businesses are threatened by increasing wariness of US-based companies. Their success depends on a global Internet, and as more countries consider splintering off into their own internal Internets or blocking services from US companies, silence is bad business.

Such fears are no longer hypothetical. They're already affecting companies like Verizon, which lost a German government contract in because it offered data to the NSA, and Apple, which had the release of its new iPhones delayed in China because the Chinese government feared that the devices might be used to spy on its citizens. (You know something's wrong when China, of all countries, is worried about protecting its citizens from any kind of government surveillance.)

Twitter's lawsuit is a more direct way of handling the problem of governmental limitations on data request disclosures. The company says in a blog post that it has attempted to avoid filing a lawsuit in its efforts to convince the government that increased transparency would be good for both Twitter and its users, but its other efforts have failed to lead to any meaningful changes:

We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail. In April, we provided a draft Transparency Report addendum to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a report which we hoped would provide meaningful transparency for our users. After many months of discussions, we were unable to convince them to allow us to publish even a redacted version of the report.
Who'd have thought that we would eventually see a consumer company sue the US government for the right to be more honest with consumers? Companies are usually forced to reveal their darkest secrets when the government investigates them; now they're fighting to tell people about the full extent of their involvement with one of the world's most secretive intelligence agencies and its efforts to spy on basically everyone who somehow interacts with other people.

What a world.