Twitter Hands Over Occupy Protester’s Protected Tweets

Faced with the threat of stiff fines, the little blue bird is singing like, well, a bird.

Twitter has handed over more that three months of protected tweets from Malcolm Harris to comply with a subpoena upheld by New York State Supreme Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino, to avoid fines Sciarrino sought to enforce his ruling.

“I can’t put Twitter or the little blue bird in jail, so the only way to punish is monetarily,” Sciarrino said a Sept. 11 ruling in which he demanded the San Francisco company either comply with the subpoena by Sept. 14 or provide him financial data for the past two quarters so he could set a suitably punitive fine.

Twitter had appealed Sciarrino’s original ruling upholding the subpoena on the basis that protected tweets — as opposed to the more commonly known public tweets — are private communications owned by the sender, so the company is not able to disclose them without the account holder’s permission.

In its appeal, Twitter noted “…the government concedes it is unable to publicly access Defendant’s Tweets…The fact that the government needs Twitter’s assistance to get access to these communications coupled with the fact that the user is explicitly opposing this access, contradicts the notion that the user has no reasonable expectation of privacy in these Tweets.”

The company had asked for a stay of Sciarrino’s compliance order until a higher court ruled on its appeal, but that motion was denied.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that Twitter’s capitulation will likely quash the appeal altogether, since surrendering the tweets renders it moot. Thus the supposed legal difference between public and protected tweets may also become irrelevant in American courts.

Malcolm Harris was one of the “Occupy Wall Street” protesters arrested at a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge in November 2011.

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