Twitter sued the federal government in U.S. District Court in Northern California today over government policy that doesn't allow communications companies like Twitter, AT&T, Facebook and Google to fully disclose surveillance requests from federal agencies like the NSA. The lawsuit comes a few months after the house passed a bill that was supposed to rein in NSA spying.
U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-WA, 1) was, relatively speaking, one of a handful of dissident Democrats and Republicans (70 and 51 respectively) who voted against the so-called USA Freedom Act in May; the majority of her house colleagues spun the winning legislation (303-121) as a response to Edward Snowden's unnerving revelations about massive government spying. But DelBene said key privacy amendments had been stripped out of the bill.
In response to Twitter's lawsuit, she reiterated that complaint today: "During consideration of the USA Freedom Act in the House Judiciary Committee, I fought for increased transparency to ensure that companies are allowed to disclose this type of information to the public about the number and nature of government demands for user information," DelBene tells PubliCola. (And it's all true.)
While the legislation DelBene opposed (still up for debate in the senate) did curtail aspects of the government's program by forcing the government to get court approval for individual surveillance searches from telecom and internet companies and by changing the degrees of separation required (from three people removed from the subject of surveillance to two) for requesting data on people—privacy critics still complained that bill fostered unfounded snooping. For example, the bill expanded the type of allowable federal search requests from specific people, accounts, or entities to include broader searches such as for "addresses" and "devices."
And here's where the Twitter lawsuit comes in: The bill also scales back the effectiveness of language Rep. DelBene successfully fought to include at the original judiciary committee level that enabled Internet companies to let the public know what kind of searches were going on. Her amendment was based on negotiations between the Department of Justice and tech companies that had given companies more flexibility to disclose surveillance requests from the feds.
"This lawsuit further highlights the need to continue working on legislation to reform our government surveillance system."—Rep. Suzan DelBene
While companies can still disclose government searches, the new bill limits that disclosure, exempting things such as searches done under the 702 provision of the Patriot Act, the provision that authorizes mass collection of content from overseas—and has provided a loophole for the government to creep into stateside data in the past.
Libertarian Silicon Valley causes like this one tend to find crossover between liberals, particularly techie ones like DelBene (especially given that her top contributor is Microsoft) and conservatives. It can also put conservatives, who are hawkishly committed to national security, in a bind.
We asked both DelBene and her challenger Republican Pedro Celis for their reactions to the Twitter lawsuit. Like DelBene, Celis has gotten lots of money from individual Microsoft employees (DelBene's gotten $70,000 and Celis has gotten $48,000), though unlike DelBene, Celis hasn't gotten any money from Microsoft's PAC. DelBene has gotten $10,000.
DelBene enthusiastically supported Twitter's lawsuit, telling PubliCola: “This lawsuit further highlights the need to continue working on legislation to reform our government surveillance system.”
Celis has not responded to our inquiry.
UPDATE: Celis agrees with Twitter on this (and DelBene). Celis spokesman Gray Delany tells us:
"Pedro agrees with Twitter. It is their First Amendment right to be able to disclose the number of court orders received. National security does not take precedence over transparency."