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Is Twitter A Secret Instrument Of The State?

Privately-held Twitter has been closely linked to three incidents that we know of in which the Internet service worked closely with official United States agencies. The first was in Iraq, then Iran, and the most recent in Pittsburgh.

Michael Hickins

October 15, 2009

4 Min Read

Privately-held Twitter has been closely linked to three incidents that we know of in which the Internet service worked closely with official United States agencies. The first was in Iraq, then Iran, and the most recent in Pittsburgh.The Pittsburgh case involving G-20 protesters Eliot Madison and Michael Wallschlaeger is particularly mysterious because the search warrant used by police, inferring a link between Madison and Twitter, is masked by a sealed affidavit. The warrant, which was issued at 3:25 PM on Thursday, September 24, allowed police to search Madison's hotel room, which is where they seized cell phones, PCs and a police scanner.

The FBI later searched Madison's New York apartment and came away with Marxist literature and information about political associates. Whoa.

The three charges against Madison and Wallschlaeger -- possession of instruments of crime (the seized electronics), hindering apprehension, and criminal use of communications facilities (the Internet) -- hinge on whether or not the two used their equipment to help protesters disobey lawful police orders.

"There is no evidence they prodded anyone to disobey any lawful orders," Claudia Davidson, one of the attorneys representing the men told me today.

If the case ever comes to trial (a hearing is set for November 17), plenty will be said and written about the overreaching search warrant and the denial of Madison's Constitutional rights (especially where the Marxist literature and political associates are concerned.)

But the answer to the question that interests me now -- how did the police connect Madison to his alleged Twitter handle, g20pgh, -- remains cloaked behind a judge's seal. Davidson told me she plans to file a motion to unseal the affidavit.

Davidson told me the arrests are nothing more than a "preemptive attempt to prevent people from demonstrating." Even if you granted (which she doesn't) that Madison had been actually helping people disobey orders from the riot police, "this is exactly what was going on in Iran, and that was supposed to be the greatest thing ever."

Yeah, let's talk about Iran for a moment here.

It's been widely reported that Twitter, which was used by Iranian citizens to protest rigged election results this spring, delayed site maintenance at the request of the U.S. State Department, to ensure that the service didn't go down during that crucial period.

But less reported is that Twitter co-founder Biz Stone felt the need to repudiate that record of events and tout Twitter's independence, blogging that "the State Department does not have access to our decision making process." Twitter postponed site maintenance of its own accord, he said, and not at the government's request. Was he protesting too much?

Between that and Jack Dorsey's trip as part of a Web 2.0 delegation to Iraq, did Stone think there was too much publicity surrounding Twitter's connection to the U.S. government?

I sent Stone a Tweet asking him to clarify Twitter's role in the arrests, but never got a response.

Twitter may very well have been obligated to turn over Madison's account information, but that would have only occurred if they had received a search warrant themselves, and that doesn't seem to be the case.

Police had to have known Madison's identity before they obtained a warrant to search his room. How did they learn that identity?

The simplest answer is that Twitter gave it to them without a search warrant. In which case, Twitter doesn't deserve our trust.

At least since the Republican Convention held in New York City in 2004, police and protesters have played cat and mouse games with electronic communications equipment. But if police forces stopped trying to insulate politicians from mass demonstrations, demonstrators would have less cause to resort to cutting-edge technology to outwit them, and law enforcement would have less cause to infringe on our Constitutional rights.

There has always been a tricky and dangerous interplay between our rights and the state's obligation to protect property and order; crowds can become dangerous, and even riot police can get out of control. There is a long tradition of cooperation between organizers of mass demonstrations and law enforcement agencies to avoid violence, but events on the field change quickly and communications can sometimes break down. That's where some of these new communication tools could actually improve things, and that would be a constructive role for Twitter to play.

But Twitter ratting its users out to the man? Not so much.

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