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Twitter Sues for Right to Disclose Info on Government Data Requests

The lawsuit comes after efforts by Twitter to reach an agreement with the Obama administration broke down.

Julia Tim / Shutterstock

Twitter sued the U.S. government Tuesday, arguing that the Obama administration’s restrictions on what information the company can release about U.S. intelligence agency requests for user data violates Twitter’s free speech rights.

“Our ability to speak has been restricted by laws that prohibit and even criminalize a service provider like us from disclosing the exact number of national security letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court orders received — even if that number is zero,” the company wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

The company said it decided to sue after “many months of discussions” with Justice Department lawyers about how Twitter could release more information about the number of intelligence community data requests. Those negotiations fell apart after government attorneys wouldn’t budge, Twitter said.

Twitter’s 18-page complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California. Tomorrow the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes the District Court of Northern California, is scheduled to hear a case about whether nondisclosure provisions in national security letters under the USA Patriot Act are unconstitutional.

In February, Twitter suggested it might have to take legal action for the right to release more data about the number of security-agency requests. It repeated that threat in July.

Other Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and LinkedIn, entered into an agreement with the Justice Department in January to release more details about the number and types of data requests it received from government agencies.

But that agreement still severely limits what the public can find out. The companies can only disclose to the nearest 1,000 how many National security letters or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court requests they’ve received for user information.

Before the companies reached that compromise, they weren’t able to acknowledge that they’d even received those requests. Twitter was not part of that agreement, but the government has held that other tech companies are covered under the arrangement.

“Twitter is doing the right thing by challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders,” said Jameel Jaffer, the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director, in a statement. “The Constitution doesn’t permit the government to impose so broad a prohibition on the publication of truthful speech about government conduct. We hope that other technology companies will now follow Twitter’s lead.”

Twitter’s lawsuit is just the latest in a series of efforts by tech companies to push the Obama administration to curb the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance activities in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.

The companies formed an advocacy group, ReformGovernmentSurveillance.com, and have lobbied Congress extensively to pass legislation, the USA Freedom Act, to rein in the agency’s data collection practices. That legislation is currently stuck in the Senate.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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