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Twitter Breaks Rank, Threatens to Fight NSA Gag Orders

Steve Byland/

Twitter threatened to launch a legal battle with the Obama administration on Thursday over gag orders that prevent it from disclosing information about surveillance of its users.

The statement puts Twitter at odds with other technology giants including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook, who all struck a deal with the government last month to drop their lawsuits in exchange for looser secrecy rules.

"We think the government's restriction on our speech not only unfairly impacts our users' privacy, but also violates our First Amendment right to free expression and open discussion of government affairs," Jeremy Kessel, Twitter's manager of global legal policy, wrote in a blog post.

He said the company has pressed the Justice Department for greater transparency and is also "considering legal options we may have to seek to defend our First Amendment rights."

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Facebook all sued the Justice Department last year, saying their rights were being violated by legal orders barring them from revealing statistics about National Security Agency surveillance of their users. The companies all regularly report on police requests for user data, but the U.S. government severely restricted their ability to discuss national security demands. Twitter, which is largely a public social media service, was not involved in the legal battle.

After several months of negotiations, the tech companies and the Justice Department reached an agreement last month. The Obama administration agreed to allow the companies to reveal more information than ever before, but they were still limited to disclosing the total number of National Security Letters within bands of 1,000. In exchange, the companies agreed to abandon their lawsuits, although they said they would continue to push Congress for better transparency.

But Twitter said the expanded disclosure rights aren't enough.

"While this agreement is a step in the right direction, these ranges do not provide meaningful or sufficient transparency for the public, especially for entities that do not receive a significant number of—or any—national security requests," Kessel said.

Twitter made the statement along with releasing its latest data on police requests for information. The company revealed that it received 833 police requests covering 1,323 accounts in the United States in the second half of 2013. Twitter said it complied with 69 percent of the requests.

The company chose not to disclose national security requests for data, suggesting that it received so few that identifying a broad range would mislead the public.

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