Following subpoena, Twitter gives user data to police

New York Times | New York Post | ABC News

After initially refusing, Twitter has now turned over data to New York City police about a user who tweeted threats, Wendy Ruderman reports in The New York Times. The threats were aimed at a theater where Mike Tyson is performing a one-man play. “We needed a name and we needed it fast. Twitter said no,” Police Department spokesperson Paul Browne told the New York Post.

In its response, Twitter said, "While we do invoke emergency-disclosure procedures when it appears that a threat is present, specific and immediate, this does not appear to fall under those strict parameters as per our policies.”

ABC News' Christina Ng and Richard Esposito write that Twitter has to balance preventing imminent physical harm with privacy concerns. Twitter declined to comment, but in the case the New York police were seeking information about, the user had tweeted he or she was in Florida (not New York).

If Twitter were to turn over the user's identity at the first request, it could be liable for any mistake or potential invasion of privacy, according to Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties for Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society.

"The law prohibits providers from turning certain information over voluntarily and, if they do, they can be sued," Granick said. "But the government can compel the information from the provider with varying degrees of legal process depending on what the information is. When it's the name associated with the account, the government can get that with just the subpoena."

Twitter's law-enforcement guidelines say the same:

In accordance with our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, non-public information about Twitter users is not released except as lawfully required by appropriate legal process such as a subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process.

The police made the request Friday, Ruderman writes, and the subpoena was served Monday. Ruderman quotes someone who says Twitter got it wrong:

Larry Cunningham, an associate professor and associate dean at St. John’s University School of Law in Queens, said he agreed that Twitter should have cooperated without a court order.

“Social media is of increasing importance to law enforcement and criminal prosecutions,” said Mr. Cunningham, a former criminal prosecutor. “In general, social media outlets do a very good job of cooperating with authorities, but in this case, however, Twitter should have given the information without a court order under their emergency procedures policy. The threats were clear enough.”

Twitter got in hot water recently for bringing a tweet to NBC's attention because it contained an executive's work email address. After NBC filed a complaint, Twitter suspended the user who wrote it, British journalist Guy Adams. Within 48 hours, the company apologized, saying it shouldn't have acted "proactively" and reinstated Adams' account.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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