Twitter Transparency and Occupy Independence Day

Declaration of Internet Freedom
Is this the icon of the new age of the Internet? It's the "Declaration of Internet Freedom " Icon. Source:

Doomsday prophecies sell well; it’s why so many believe that the Mayan calendar ending on December 21, 2012 must mean that the world is ending then. The truth, however, is that the end of the Mayan calendar simply signals the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. And guess what, this dawning of a new age may be happening in cyberspace as well – and not always in a good way. Take for example Twitter’s recent revelation that the government requested  personally identifiable information on people who sent anonymous tweets relating to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Twitter and Occupy Wall Street Subpoenas

The Occupy Movement was this generations “Vietnam War Protest” — if not in ideology, in enthusiasm and style. While mainstream media outlets were slow to react and report on the story, the Occupy Movement in New York (and around the world) really took hold as people came together to Peaceable Assembly, petitioning to redress grievances.

But According to USAToday, while citizens were exercising their right to protest, officials were filling out data-collecting paperwork. And as a result of government efforts, “A New York judge ordered Twitter to give prosecutors information about an Occupy Wall Street protester who was among 700 people arrested during a march on the Brooklyn Bridge in October.”

Twitter was subpoenaed for information relating to the individual between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31, 2011. The social media company tried to fight it, saying that according to their terms of service, the information was technically owned by the user. But Twitter lost the argument and were ordered to give up the information.

“If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy,” Criminal Court Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. wrote in an 11-page ruling relating to the Twitter disclosure case.

“There is no proprietary interest in your tweets, which you have now gifted to the world. This is not the same as a private e-mail, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the Internet that now exist. Those private dialogues would require a warrant based on probable cause in order to access the relevant information.”

According to Twitter spokeswoman Carolyn Penner, the company plans to study their legal options.

“Twitter’s Terms of Service have long made it absolutely clear that its users ‘own’ their content,” she said in a statement. “We continue to have a steadfast commitment to our users and their rights.”

Twitter Transparency Report

Government requests for Twitter information go beyond the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Like Google’s transparency report, it lays out which governments around the world have been requesting data from the social networking platform.

In the first half of 2012, Twitter received more government requests for information than the whole of 2011. In cases where the US government requested data, Twitter gave up some or all of the information about 75% of the time. In total, there were 849 government requests, of which the US made 679.

Additionally, Twitter has provided information on the number of copyright infringement or Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down notices received. For 2012, 3378 DMCA takedown notices were sent to Twitter, of which 38% were enacted.

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

While Twitter is an important social media network, it’s not the entire Internet. The World Wide Web is well known for harboring and giving voice to thousands and millions of people globally. And as we celebrate Fourth of July today in the United States, cyberspace is abuzz with talk of a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” campaign.

The Declaration of Internet Freedom campaign is borne out of the anti-SOPA, PIPA and ACTA community. The goal of the group is to limit to the codification of over-reaching legislation that unfairly favors entertainment and media companies and stifles free speech.

The idea came about when Free Press Internet campaign director Josh Levy, Reddit co-found Alexis Ohanian, and other Internet activists started to craft a “Declaration of Internet Freedom.”

The group hopes the document helps establish an “international movement” that takes action to keep the “World Wide Web” a “free speech zone.” The specifics remain up for refinement from the Internet community at large — and all you have to do to help shape this document is become involved.

Perhaps it’s time to Occupy Independence Day and do everything you can to spread the word. The more you know and the more other people know about proposed Internet laws, the more likely a document like the Declaration of Internet Freedom has of becoming enshrined into our public consciousness – and then hopefully our laws.

Freedom Of Speech: What Is It And What Are The Limits?

6922226_sInternet law attorney, Aaron Kelly, answers questions about free speech, its limits and the Internet.

What do speech, press, religion and petition freedoms afford us?

It’s a big question, but in short, the freedoms to speech, press, religion and petition guarantee that each citizen can express themselves safely and openly. It means we can speak up when we disagree with authorities; it means we can practice a religion of our own choosing without fear of persecution; it means that our media is able to report on government mistakes; it means we can gather, and en masse, let our collective voice be heard about things we’re unhappy about.

Are There Limits To Freedom Of Speech?

There are limits to freedom of speech, and those limits boil down to public safety and honesty. The classic example of unprotected speech is screaming fire in a crowded room when there is no fire, as the welfare of the citizenry becomes paramount. Protests require permits to ensure civil life; permits also ensure that proper safety requirements are met.

Freedom of Speech and Religion Can Be A Mine Field

As for religion, well, that’s a little more nuanced, as many religions have beliefs that are contradictory to secular law – but one thing is for sure, the courts do not like deciding about religious matters. Which may actually be a big news story pretty soon, as there are a couple of Scientology lawsuits in the works, wherein a few judges may have to walk that freedom of religion vs. secular law tight-rope.

Anonymous Defamation

As for Internet law and our basic freedoms of expression, the big issue these days is the matter of online defamation.  People are less careful about what they say online, which often results in defamation lawsuits. The anonymity the Internet affords presents another layer of litigation, as you first have to go through the process of uncovering the legal name of the defaming party…and many people use freedom of speech as a defense during this stage to block their name from entering the public record.

How long have people been trying to censor online content?

Easy, since the beginning. Well, maybe not Tim Burners Lee beginning, but for arguments sake, let’s just say that once the public merged onto “the information super highway” (remember when that was the phrase), people started to censor. In the early years, copyright infringement and defamation worked as effective litigation-based strategy for online censorship. And back then, before the DMCA, website operators were not protected….so yes, it happened quite a bit – and still does today.

What steps are needed to prevent online censorship?

I wish I had the answer! If I did, I’d be living la vida Gates. No, but in all seriousness, it’s a complicated question – as there are so many groups to take into account. Generally speaking, what we need are laws that both allow for Internet freedom and foster innovation.


SOPA and PIPA were terrible; it would have been un-American to pass either. At this point in the game, instead of creating a flurry of new bills with the stated goal of “protecting American jobs” that really do nothing more than censor, we need to tweak extant Internet-related bills.

The more people start asking questions about online censorship, and voicing their displeasure with bad laws, the less likely a terrible bill will sneak by us. As the old saying goes, “power to the people.”

What are some common censorship targets?

Depends on where in the world you are. I wrote a story a couple of weeks ago about a guy who was charged with defamation for talking unkindly about the King of Thailand online. Now, nobody’s going to be jailed in the United States for criticizing the government (threatening government officials, however, will land you in hot water). Heck, many of the most successful Web outlets were built on government criticism. In the U.S., it’s mainly copyright infringement and defamation that lead to “censorship” issues.

Are Celebrities The Biggest Proponents of Censorship?

I was reading a report today about a recent online “censorship” case, involving the Twitter leak of Beyonce’s and Andre3000’s new single. An injunction was granted, Twitter complied, and the song was taken down. Some users are calling it censorship.

But the punch line is that it was actually BigBoi – Andre 3000’s partner – that was one of the people who “infringed” the song on Twitter. Which, well, just opens up another can of cultural-trend worms regarding the use of the Internet as a means of celebrity promotion, which then brings the whole legal idea of “right of publicity” to the fore again.

So, I guess it’s fair to say that celebrities may be the #1 culprit of wanting to censor the Internet these days. But, can you blame them? After all, their brands are their names and work. Not to sound like the flip-flopper, but there are two sides to the coin. It really does come down to a case by case assessment. Artists trying to protect their work, cool. Authorities trying to use laws to keep information of import from the public, not cool.