Twitter Is Suing the U.S. Government to Be Able to Disclose Surveillance Request Numbers

The version of the report Twitter can show you.

Screencap from Twitter

Twitter announced Tuesday that it has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government seeking the ability to publish a full transparency report—meaning the exact number of surveillance requests the company gets from law enforcement rather than just broad ranges.

The company claims that restricting its ability to release the numbers of national security letters (NSLs) and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders it receives—even if the number is zero—violates First Amendment free speech rights. It is specifically suing the Department of Justice and the FBI.

“We’ve tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail,” Ben Lee, Twitter’s vice president of legal wrote in a blog post. He explains:

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.

Twitter doesn’t get the volume of NSLs and FISA orders that other large tech companies do. It had 2,058 total requests in the first half of 2014 compared to Google’s almost 32,000.  But the lawsuit is still a big symbolic step. Another recent effort to make a statement was Apple and Google announcing that in their new operating systems adding a passcode will trigger encryption with no backdoor, thus making it impossible for them to comply with search warrants and other government mobile data requests. FBI Director James Comey did not take that news well.

Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director, said in a statement about Twitter’s lawsuit, “The Constitution doesn’t permit the government to impose so broad a prohibition on the publication of truthful speech about government conduct. We hope that other technology companies will now follow Twitter’s lead.”