The request was approved by a magistrate judge in Alexandria, Virginia where a federal grand jury is looking into charges against WikiLeaks related to its acquisition and publishing of U.S. government classified information. The court order came with a gag order that prevented Twitter from telling anyone, especially the target of the order, about the order’s existence.
To Twitter’s credit, the company didn’t just open up its database, find the information the feds were seeking (such as the IP and e-mail addresses used by the targets) and quietly continue on with building new features. Instead the company successfully challenged the gag order in court, and then told the targets that their data was being requested, giving them time to try and quash the order themselves.
Twitter and other companies, notably Google, have a policy of notifying a user before responding to a subpoena, or a similar request for records. That gives the user a fair chance to go to court and try and quash the subpoena. That’s a great policy. But it has one fatal flaw. If the records request comes with a gag order, the company can’t notify anyone. And it’s quite routine for law enforcement to staple a gag order to a records request.
That’s what makes Twitter’s move so important. It briefly carried the torch for its users during that crucial period when, because of the gag order, its users couldn’t carry it themselves. The company’s action in asking for the gag order to be overturned sets a new precedent that we can only hope that other companies begin to follow.