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Join Our Letter To Internet Companies

Jay Stanley,
Senior Policy Analyst,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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February 16, 2011

A few weeks ago, we all learned that the Justice Department had obtained an order demanding that Twitter turn over private information about several of its users in connection with the government’s investigation of WikiLeaks.

These demands only became public because Twitter, when it got the orders, apparently didn’t just blindly comply, but took steps to get the order unsealed. Twitter was then able to notify its users that the order had been received so they could seek to protect their privacy by challenging it if they wished.

Yesterday our attorney Aden Fine appeared in federal court on this issue. Today, we are issuing a public letter to Internet companies asking them to take some affirmative steps to protect their customers and their users in the same way that Twitter did in this case. And, we are inviting members of the public to sign on to our letter.

We entrust Internet companies with an ever-increasing number of details about our private lives: where we go, who we know, what we do and even what we’re thinking about. But these companies receive a large number of demands for private information from government agencies – subpoenas, National Security Letters, and other requests for personal information. Google, for example, reports that it has received over 4,200 demands for information in just the past six months. In 2006, AOL reported that it was receiving more than 1,000 subpoenas a month.

While many of those orders are no doubt straightforward and legally sound, the problem is that many are not. For most of our history, communications technology changed relatively slowly, but today, the speed of the Internet revolution has far outpaced the ability of our legal system to extend constitutional protections to new technologies. The result has been a government “land grab” in which the authorities have seized new powers to intrude upon the privacy of Americans using new technologies.

We are hopeful that eventually our Constitution will be properly applied to new technologies. However, our courts move slowly, and only issue rulings when cases come before them. It took nearly 40 years for the Supreme Court to extend Fourth Amendment privacy protections to cover telephone calls, for example.

Internet companies have an important role to play in this unfolding story. That is why we are asking them to take the following steps to better safeguard our privacy:

· All companies should have a policy like Twitter’s to notify users about demands for information whenever legally possible and give them the opportunity to defend their privacy and free speech rights.

· All companies should have a policy to comply with demands only where required by law, and should have a policy to resist overbroad demands and disclose no more information than required.

· All companies should have a policy like Google to disclose the number of demands that they receive, and these reports should include all demands that can be disclosed under the law.

· All companies should support efforts to modernize outdated state and federal electronic privacy laws so that we are not forced to choose between using their service and keeping our personal information safe from misuse.

Internet companies are playing an ever-more-important role in our lives, and holding ever-more information about us. They have a responsibility to act fairly. Join our letter and tell them that you, too, want them to do so.