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Summary:

The US government’s move to order Twitter to disclose information about users involved with WikiLeaks confirms the network’s status as a real-time information network, but also makes it obvious how much we have come to rely on it, and the implications of that dependence.

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Not that long ago, there was much debate about whether Twitter was just a plaything for nerds or a powerful, real-time information network. Now the U.S. Department of Justice has answered the question for us by serving the company with a court order related to WikiLeaks, and the case the government is trying to make against founder Julian Assange for releasing secret diplomatic cables. But the subpoena also points out how easy it is for the DoJ to get the information it seeks, because Twitter acts as a central gatekeeper. To its credit, the company has effectively made this process public, unlike some others that have reportedly received similar orders.

The subpoena first came to light on Friday, when Birgitta Jónsdóttir — a member of the Icelandic parliament and an early supporter of WikiLeaks — said on Twitter that she had been informed by the company of a DoJ order. As Glenn Greenwald has reported, the order (a copy of which is embedded below) compels Twitter to turn over not just tweets, but also IP addresses, payment information from user accounts and various other personal information the government claims is related to its case (Jónsdóttir has said she is going to fight the order). The U.S. government is said to be pursuing a case against Assange under the Espionage Act by proving that he conspired with the leaker of the diplomatic cables.

In addition to Manning and Jónsdóttir, letters about the court order have been sent to Dutch hacker Rop Gonggrijp, also an early supporter of WikiLeaks. According to the official WikiLeaks account on Twitter, similar orders have been sent to Google and Facebook, although neither of these companies has made the federal requests public, if they have received them (a spokesman for Facebook said the company “has no comment to make at this time,” and Google has not responded to an emailed request for comment).

According to Greenwald and a report in the New York Times, the court order sent to Twitter would not have become public at all if the company had not initially refused to comply with the DoJ request and effectively forced it out into the open. Twitter should be congratulated for this (and has been by many users on Twitter since the news broke Friday night). The company didn’t have to fight for this court order to be made public; it could easily have complied with the DoJ subpoena in private.

However, the fact that Twitter is being targeted by the government is another sign of how important the network has become as a real-time publishing platform, and also of how centralized the service is — something that could spark interest in distributed and open-source alternatives such as Status.net, just as the downtime suffered by the network early last year did. It is another sign of how much we rely on networks that are controlled by a single corporate entity, as Global Voices founder Ethan Zuckerman pointed out when WikiLeaks was ejected from Amazon’s servers and had its DNS service shut down.

All of this makes it even more important that Twitter has forced the government’s attempts out into the light. One would hope that Facebook and Google — the latter of whom has talked a lot in the past about its commitment to freedom of speech, and has also taken action in China to protest that government’s digital surveillance of its citizens — would also come clean about any court orders they have received, especially when the DoJ appears determined to make a case that could easily entrap virtually anyone, up to and including reporters for the New York Times.

The U.S. government’s move to “tap” Twitter as a way of engaging in digital surveillance confirms the network’s status as a real-time information network, but also makes it obvious how much we have come to rely on it, and the implications of that dependence. As founder Evan Williams has noted, Twitter effectively makes everyone a publisher — and that means we are all potentially targets for similar court orders.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user The U.S. Army

  1. The DOJ is just tossing crap out to see what sticks. Not a lawyer, but a US espionage case needs a citizen to prosecute currently, and Assange doesn’t qualify.
    Regarding your comment on relying “on networks that are controlled by a single corporate entity”, whose fault is that?

    Folks using twitter, facebook and other ‘social networks’ are playing the lemming game and the cliff is coming soon. There will be a new shiny thing just around the corner.

    If getting a subpoena is the bar to becoming a ‘real time publishing platform’, you might want to think about this.

    Validity through Litigation is not really the direction we should be heading.

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