Who’s afraid of wiretap-friendly social media?

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The micro-blogging service Twitter is standing behind one of its users in a row between the firm and the United States justice department. US authorities are demanding that Twitter hand over one of its member’s messages. Twitter has contested the order, arguing that users are the ‘owners’ of their content.

Twitter filed a motion in a New York state court after a subpoena ordered the firm to disclose user information on Malcolm Harris, a New York-based writer who was arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest last October.

Harris and hundreds of other campaigners have been accused of disorderly behaviour for blocking traffic on Brooklyn Bridge during the march. Prosecutors claim private tweets (Direct Messages) by Mr Harris would prove that he knew about police instructions ordering protesters not to block traffic.

The Harris case is not an exception. During the 2010 WikiLeaks probe, a US judge ordered Twitter to disclose information about three of its account holders - Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic parliament, US computer researcher Jacob Appelbaum and Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch volunteer for WikiLeaks. Twitter only handed over the data after a district court judge upheld a ruling by a US magistrate judge.

Dutch Green Left MP Arjan El Fassed is calling on other internet service providers to clarify their position on privacy regulations – transparency will attract more customers, he says. Authorities in the Netherlands are allowed to ask internet providers for information on their users, but it remains very unclear how often they request information and whether the internet companies actually hand it over.

El Fassed has asked the government to release statistics on the matter but it refused. The government says it would jeopardise specific cases being investigated by the Public Prosecution Service.

The Green Left MP says there are no guidelines on who is authorised to request personal data, how often that information is requested and on what grounds it is justified. Legislation on telephone wiretaps has been adopted; so, as far as El Fassed is concerned, it is time to adopt similar regulations for internet use.

While police authorities register whenever user information is requested, they don’t keep any records of whether the user was informed about the handover of that information, as is actually required by law.

El Fassed has decided to take action himself.

“Social media has to be transparent. Authorities have to be open about the rules and rights of the user, otherwise we’re living in a police state. Companies have to make clear to their clients and users what they do if the authorities knock on the door. They have to demonstrate that they will act with reserve if faced with such requests.”

Wiretap-friendly products
In the US, technology website CNET claims the FBI has asked internet companies like Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo and Google to build in backdoors for government surveillance. Because of the shift from telephone communication to internet, it’s harder for the FBI to wiretap suspects. So, they’ve proposed a law requiring social-networking sites and providers of VoIP, instant messaging and email to alter their code to ensure their products are wiretap-friendly.

El Fassed is concerned about the extension of surveillance powers. We should at least preserve whatever protection we have, he argues. "People have to realise that once you give away your privacy rights, they’ll be gone for good."

Rewards for privacy respect
Twitter is the only social media service which upholds the principle that tweets are private property. If the provider is approached by authorities anywhere in the world to hand over account holder information, then the user will be notified. Google is notorious for playing fast and loose with their account holders' privacy, but does explicitly list which authorities approach it for data in its Transparency Report.

Google and Twitter understand that their clients value their privacy, says El Fassed. All companies should promote this as a competitive selling point. “Then these companies would be rewarded for safeguarding their clients' privacy.”