Twitter has become the first major tech company to truly take a stand against government data-collection practices, filing a lawsuit against the U.S. government. The lawsuit alleges that the first amendment rights of the company's user base have been violated by the U.S. Justice Department, which controls exactly how transparent companies can be in revealing government requests for personal data. The company’s decision is important for a few reasons: it makes Twitter the only company to take legal action to back their promises for increased transparency, it demonstrates a true commitment to the privacy of their user base, and it comes at a time when the N.S.A. and data security is not at the forefront of the national discussion.
Earlier this year, Google and Microsoft were among the major tech companies to reach a deal allowing them to reveal government requests for personal data, albeit in a limited capacity. Following that settlement, several tech companies have been issuing transparency reports that inform users about government surveillance tactics. These reports, however, are still restricted in terms of what information can be shared with the public. Twitter — which has been publishing its own versions of transparency reports — is attempting to lift the ban on what information the company can and cannot disclose to its users.
The company explained the reasoning behind its legal battles in a blog post today. The legal action stems from the government's refusal to allow Twitter to publish a complete report of all the National Security Letters, or NSLs, and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders that have been processed in regards to the company's user base. It also outlines Twitter’s support of the the USA Freedom Act, legislation introduced this year by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy that would limit the scope of the government’s data collection powers. Keeping with its values of transparency, the company’s filing in the U.S. District Court of California — near its headquarters in San Francisco — is also available in full online.
Twitter’s continued push against government surveillance at a time when the N.S.A. is no longer dominating news headlines is a definitive statement about the company’s character. Google, Facebook, and several other Silicon Valley heavyweights joined the rally against government surveillance when it was a popular move to do so, but none have shown as much determination to actually achieve results as Twitter. It may be a smart business move to ensure the privacy of your customers, but Twitter is the only one showing that they're serious about the issue.
The company isn’t just battling to keep its consumer base satisfied, it’s fighting for a fundamental change in the way the American government operates in the 21st century. The mention of the USA Freedom Act demonstrates the role public policy can play in terms of how a private company can interact with its users, and only further emphasizes how important of a step in the right direction Twitter has taken. Secret data collection is viewed by many on both ends of the political spectrum as an infringement upon constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, and Twitter is bold for responding to the practice rather than simply complying under the government’s own rules.