A few months ago, Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. ruled that Twitter must give up three months worth of Occupy protester Malcolm Harris’s tweets to the government. Twitter since then has made an appeal to the courts, claiming that tweets are private and that users own them, not Twitter itself. The battle has become a legal issue about free speech and who really owns a tweet. Twitter has relentlessly pushed for the rights of their users, but it may be in vain.
The case is centered around the idea that a tweet is public property once it is posted on Twitter. The second you allow all of the Twitter community to view your tweet then you do not own it anymore. However, Twitter has argued that if this were in fact the case, then the government would not need to subpoena them for tweets that are no longer available (e.g. tweets that are deleted or older than 180 days).
The courts have to formally subpoena Twitter in order to view any archived tweets. Twitter has released transparency reports so that users can see how often this happens, and they have taken a stand for users like Malcolm Harris because tweets are the ideas and thoughts of individual users, and each user has the right to know that they are being subpoenaed. This allows users to file a motion to quash the subpoena if it is in their best interest.
In the appeal Twitter has also questioned the courts decision because emails are protected forms of speech, but not unavailable tweets. In order to view an email, the government must obtain a search warrant, but this is not the case for tweets. This point is very critical because it focuses on the privacy of a user's account. A user can post a tweet that is viewed publicly, but at what point is it no longer theirs?
Here is why this case matters:
Social media has been used several times before in order to gain more information on a person’s private life. It is a growing trend (especially in the United States), and in a society and culture that is growing more dependent on these mediums to speak out, it is important to know where our so-called “freedom” lies. As users, we need to understand our Constitutional rights in these forms of communication.
The Constitution is malleable, and its interpretation is forever changing. As we continue to change our forms of speech in society, so will how the courts view our rights. Whether you agree with Twitter or not, this case decision can set precedent for any case involving social media in the future.
Share your thoughts. Should tweets be considered public property?