In the midst of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests in October 2011, the NYPD arrested around 700 ‘protesters’ on Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan District Attorney (MDA) moved to prosecute them swiftly. It is common knowledge now that protesters communicated and organized by using social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Utilizing portable as well as more traditional computing devices like desktops and laptops, protesters set up an effective communication web.
The MDA subpoenaed protesters that he deemed to be the key figures in the organizing the protests. Malcolm Harris, who was originally charged with disorderly conduct and then released, was singled out for special scrutiny. The MDA decided to assemble all of his social media communications and filed a subpoena demanding that Twitter and other social networking sites disclose Harris’s user information and personal posts. Malcolm Harris used the nickname ‘destructuremal’ on Twitter and the MDA insisted on a comprehensive disclosure including tweets and other private user information.
Twitter was quick to take the subpoena to court arguing that the MDA’s demands were not reasonable as fulfilling these requests would be an undue burden to the company and have unpredictable legal ramifications. Twitter stressed that this kind of disclosure would result in a violation of U.S. Privacy Law, for instance, the Stored Communications Act. Matthew A. Sciarrino, New York County Criminal County Judge, was unmoved by Twitter’s appeal and delivered what many consider to be a landmark legal decision.
The judge ruled that tweeting can not be categorized as private messaging and, in Matthew Sciarrino’s words, is no different than “screaming… out the window”. Citing a few recent changes in Twitter’s terms of service, the judge reasoned that Twitter’s resistance to the subpoena was not compelling. There was a silver lining for the defendants as the judge ruled that a legal warrant is required to reach information older than 9 months.
The decision was received with alarm. The ACLU and Twitter promised to fight the ruling and Malcolm Harris’s public declarations were similarly combative. Shortly after the judge’s ruling, Twitter released its first ever transparency report detailing the number and source of information and takedown requests it processed in 2011. The United States ranked close to the top.
Although the final words are yet to be uttered, the New York judge’s decision stands as another loud signal that privacy is something that individuals should not take for granted in the age of internet.