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Twitter opened a new front Tuesday in the tech industry’s fight to shed light on the government’s surveillance practices, filing a lawsuit that claims the FBI violated the company’s First Amendment rights.
In a 19-page complaint filed in San Francisco federal court and a related blog post, [company]Twitter[/company] said that the FBI is wrongfully preventing it from disclosing how often it receives secret orders under a series of measures created through the Patriot Act.
Twitter said it asked the FBI in April to include various numbers related to National Security Letters (used by the FBI) and so-called FISA letters (used by the NSA) in its semi-annual Transparency Report, but that the agency refused its request in September, and did not even provide explanations as to which figures were acceptable to publish.
Twitter’s lawsuit, which cites the ongoing controversy over surveillance of tech companies exposed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, is related to an earlier case filed by five other tech firms: [company]Google[/company], [company]Microsoft[/company], [company]Yahoo[/company], [company]Facebook[/company] and [company]LinkedIn[/company].
Those companies sued the federal government in 2013, but agreed to drop the lawsuit in early 2014 after reaching an agreement with the Justice Department that was hailed at the time by President Obama as a way for companies to “make public more information than ever before.”
Under that agreement, companies received two options for publishing a limited amount of information about FISA and NSA letters. Twitter, however, says it is not bound by that agreement since it was not part of the lawsuit or settlement.
The company also takes issue with FBI demands that limit it from stating that it has received “zero” of a certain type of request — this is significant because other tech companies, including Apple, have used such “zero” information as so-called “warrant canaries” (which are a way to warn users about new government investigations).
At the heart of Twitter’s complaint is that the FBI limits illegally restrict its free speech rights by imposing various gag orders. Twitter claims that the gag orders are not justified because the company is not seeking to inform the targets of government investigations, but simply to disclose the existence of such investigations in the first place.
If the lawsuit gains traction, it will be another important step in shining light on the complicated legal and surveillance apparatus that the government uses to monitor the users of Twitter and other tech companies.
Here is the full complaint with some key parts underlined:
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