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The Mass Media

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February 26, 2024
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February 26, 2024

Tech Firms should follow Twitter’s lead for right to disclose details about government surveillance

Earlier this week, social media giant Twitter revealed that it’s filing a lawsuit against the United States’ government on the grounds that its First Amendment rights were being infringed upon by the government’s data disclosure policy.

A blog post by the tech company’s vice president on the Twitter website argues that “[Twitter is] entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users’ concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance—including what types of legal process have not been received. We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges” (emphasis in original). Right now tech firms are only permitted to give broad accounts of the number of requests they receive from the government. For instance, Twitter is allowed to say it received between zero and 999 requests; anything more exact could land them in legal hot water. Twitter is suing to change that.

In a nutshell, Twitter is effectively suing the US government for the right to be able to tell us exactly how much we get spied on by the guys running our nation. And that’s a good thing. In fact, not only is that a good thing, it’s an action that should be emulated by other tech companies and social media platforms around the world.

Like most tech corporations, Twitter releases scheduled reports detailing the frequency and amounts of data the government requests on its users. The problem here is that the reports are prohibited by law from being anything more than a vague account of the level of surveillance requests they receive from the government. Twitter has pledged to fight to change that, and its first step has been to file a federal lawsuit against the government, citing the unconstitutionality under the First Amendment of its inability to release more transparent reports.

Even though Twitter’s actions here are still in the company’s interests—it wants to be able to show the “limited scope” of the government’s monitoring of Twitter—beneficial externalities could potentially abound as a result of this.

Firstly, it’s worth remembering that a majority of the content posted on Twitter is public—at least much more public than other forums. Companies that provide more sensitive and personal services, like email and telephone communications providers, meanwhile, receive many more surveillance requests from the government and are bound by the same law against revealing just how expansive the scope of the government’s monitoring of their users is.

Personally—and I’m sure many other Twitter users will agree with me—I care much more about the privacy of the content of my emails, phone conversations, and even my Facebook activity than I do about my Twitter page. In this post-Snowden era, we all know the government is surveilling our activities on all of these platforms, but we have no idea how much. Twitter’s lawsuit has the potential to change that by getting the gag order lifted.

Potentially, users will be able to reach out to the tech companies they patronize and demand to know just how much of their information is being gathered by the government. However slight it may be, the shroud could  be lifted from our eyes. The lifting of this gag order will only serve to force both the government and the tech firms to be more transparent about their operations. Amen to that.

Even though success in this legal battle will most likely do very little to alleviate the government’s continuous evisceration of our privacy, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.