Twitter announced today that it is filing an appeal in a case that is helping to define privacy rights in the social media era.
The case turns on a subpoena by which New York City wants Twitter to turn over the account information of Occupy Wall Street protestor Malcolm Harris. In a controversial decision in October, Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. ruled that Harris couldn’t challenge the subpoena because he didn’t have any rights in the Twitter account and therefore lacked standing.
After the court booted Harris from the case, Twitter itself stepped in to challenge the subpoena. Early this month, the same judge ruled that no privacy rights were at stake because Twitter is a public forum akin to shouting in the street. The judge ultimately decided that prosecutors could have access to the account after he conducted a closed-court review of which parts of the account were relevant (for a detailed overview of the case, see: Social Media Judge says tweets are for Cops.
Twitter has now responded by announcing an appeal on, well, Twitter. “We’re appealing the Harris decision. It doesn’t strike the right balance between the rights of users and the interests of law enforcement,” wrote intellectual property lawyer Benjamin Lee in a tweet. The news was first reported by All Things D.
A higher court is likely to hear the appeal because the Harris affair is an important test case of privacy and social media, and because Judge Sciarrino Jr.’s rulings contain questionable reasoning and a bombastic writing style. In his rulings, the judge holds himself out as an authority on social media and uses Twitter-style hashtags with words like “#quash” and “#subpoena.”
Sciarrino Jr. was recently disciplined by New York’s judicial oversight body after lawyers complained about his attempts to friend them on Facebook. He was transferred to Manhattan from Staten Island as part of the disciplinary process. If it takes the appeal, a higher court will likely provide more guidance into how and when police can search social media.