A judge in New York has ordered Twitter to hand over information connected with Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris's former Twitter account -- including his tweets over a 10-week period and the IP addresses connected with them.
New York Criminal Court Justice Matthew Sciarrino Jr. rejected arguments by Twitter, as well as civil liberties groups, that the order violates Harris's privacy and free speech rights. Instead, Sciarrino ruled that because Harris's tweets were public at one time, he can't now prevent law enforcement from accessing them.
The ruling grew out of a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris was one of hundreds of protesters arrested during the march. He was charged with disorderly conduct for allegedly walking in the street instead of the sidewalk. Harris denies doing anything wrong; he says that the police told him (and other protesters) to move to the street.
The Manhattan District Attorney subpoenaed Twitter records related to Harris's account from Sept. 15 through Dec. 31, in hopes that his tweets would refute the claim that the police made him move to the roadway. Harris sought to quash the subpoena.
Sciarrino initially denied Harris' motion on the ground that he lacks "standing" to oppose the subpoena. Sciarrino reasoned that Twitter, not Harris, owns the material because the microblogging company's terms of service grant the company a license to distribute tweets.
Twitter then moved to quash the subpoena. Among other arguments, Twitter said that users own their tweets, and that users should be able to oppose requests for information about them. Civil liberties groups filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the subpoena should be quashed.
Sciarrino rejected those arguments last Friday. "If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy," Sciarrino wrote. "This is not the same as a private email, a private direct message, a private chat, or any of the other readily available ways to have a private conversation via the internet that now exist."
But, as civil rights advocates point out, that logic begs the question of why the police need court assistance now. "If he made it public, why do the police need a subpoena to get it?" asks Public Citizen lawyer Paul Levy. (Public Citizen was among the organizations that filed a brief opposing the subpoena.)
Sciarrino's order also allows appears to allow the police to obtain other information that wasn't public when made, including Harris's IP address at the time of the tweets.
It's not yet clear whether Twitter or Harris will ask an appeals court to review the order.