Yesterday, judge Mathew A. Sciarrino Jr., from Manhattan’s criminal court, ruled that the company Twitter Inc. would have to hand over three months of tweets posted by an Occupy Wall Street protester, Malcolm Harris. The ruling was decided after Twitter entered into a court battle with prosecutors that demanded the company hand over the messages. Harris is being prosecuted after a pro-Occupy protest, which took place on October 1on Brooklyn Bridge, resulted in hundreds of prosecutions for disorderly conduct. The fight between Twitter and prosecutors is another example of law enforcements` crackdown on social media in an attempt to control the flow of information many protest movements use to organize their supporters.
There is no doubt that social media has revolutionized the way protest movements organize. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, to the Spanish Indignados and the most recent “I am number 132” movement in Mexico, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook have allowed these movements to reach a wider audience and coordinate the logistics of events practically seamlessly, while simultaneously garnering unprecedented levels of support in record time. Some would say they are revolutionizing the face of politics as we know it, as one would be hard-pressed to find a political party, politician, or interest group without a Facebook page or Twitter account. However, the fact that the information posted is many times in the public domain puts its users in an increasingly vulnerable position, as this recent case easily demonstrates.
Privacy and anonymity have always been an issue when using social media tools. Many people choose to make their Facebook settings private in order to hide personal information from strangers and especially, from potential employers. However, the case of law enforcement bringing social media companies to court in order to access private information posted by individuals involved in movements law enforcement officials intend to prosecute adds a whole new dimension to the discussion. What right does the law enforcement of a democratic country have to the private information of individuals that was meant for their friends and followers only? When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak closed down social media sights in Egypt in an attempt to prevent the organization of protests against his regime, the world called this a breach of democracy. The Harris case demonstrates that law enforcement officials in the United States are willing to go to just the same lengths to curb the opposition.
The excessive nature of the prosecution adds a further dimension to this breach of privacy and right to association perpetrated by the Manhattan courts and law enforcement agencies. New York City Police have never been fans of protesters; in fact, quite to the contrary, they have been known for their brutality against even the most peaceful of demonstrations. Harris is one of 700 protesters who were arrested during the October 1march. Police claim that demonstrators ignored orders to stay on the pedestrian walkway and had wandered into the road, while protesters claim they believed they were allowed to walk on the roadway. That such a heavy crackdown would take place against demonstrators´ rights and privacy due only to a dispute over where they were or were not allowed to march, demonstrates that this a clear case of persecution for political motives.
The Harris case has lead many citizens to voice their concerns over the future of civil liberties and electronic freedom, and many have applauded Twitter Inc.’s move to defend Harris and protect his legal propriety of the information posted on his account. The case has also highlighted the fact that social media sites will soon have to enforce legal methods to protect their users as authorities increase their bid to glean information that will allow them to undermine opposition groups.