Gov't: You have no right to anonymous speech on Twitter

Do you remember when the government issued a subpoena for a Occupy Boston Twitter hashtag? In regards to the First Amendment and anonymous free speech online, a government attorney argued you have neither privacy nor anonymity. Users and anonymous speech are allegedly more protected by wearing a ski mask and passing out controversial flyers in public, then tweeting government criticism.

If you use social media, yet still believe in privacy and free speech, this news where technology crashed into civil liberties may make you foam at the mouth. The devil is always in the details and the feds have long monitored social media for specific hot-keyword hashtags, even seemingly harmless attention-snaggers like #security. Do you remember when the government issued a subpoena for a Twitter hashtag (#hashtagsubpoena)? The court case involves protecting First Amendment rights of Twitter user @p0isAn0n, aka Guido Fawkes. The Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney issued an administrative subpoena to Twitter to target user @p0isAn0n who wants to remain anonymous. In the continuing saga of the Occupy Boston Twitter subpoena case, the District Attorney kicked the crud out of free speech and anonymity. Privacy SOS announced, "Online denizens: the government says you are better off passing out flyers in a ski mask than Tweeting controversial material."

While there are corners of cyberspace crammed with cyber creeps and crooks who hide behind a box, and are the ones ruining anonymity for all of us, being anonymous is important for free speech. If you take away online anonymity and tie it to a specific individual's identity, it censors or silences free speech. In fact, America's citizens are in big trouble if we can no longer criticize the government anonymously because the government can subpoena and hover up all the personally identifiable information (PII) on any anonymous voice of dissent. The Assistant District Attorney (ADA) basically argued that we have "no right to anonymous speech on Twitter."  

After being in the courtroom, Privacy SOS shared details of this First Amendment case for their anonymous client. First ACLU attorney Laura Rótolo argued there are "First Amendment issues at stake in this case, because if our motion fails and Twitter is forced to comply with the subpoena, the state will learn of our client's identity, thereby ridding him of the opportunity to speak anonymously. Once our client's anonymity is lost, it is lost forever."

But then the ADA told Judge Spina that the anonymous tweeter @p0isAn0n "gave up his right to anonymity online when he joined Twitter, leading the judge to ask our lawyers about Twitter's Terms of Service agreement." The government attorney argued "the 'voluntary nature of the tweeting' is what 'puts his IP address out there.' No one forced him to use Twitter, she argued, and therefore his personally identifiable information is fair game for the government to scoop up."

The judge then asked the government attorney how else might a user "engage in anonymous speech in the 21st century if not online?"

"He could have gone down to Dewey square and handed out flyers." But he would not be anonymous if he did that, Judge Spina said. People will see him handing out those flyers. (Ed note: so will the literally tens of surveillance cameras pointed at the square.)

"He can wear a ski mask," the D.A. said, prompting at least one snicker from the public. "When he contracts through Twitter" to speak publicly, "he gives up" his rights to anonymity, she said.

So there you have it. All you people who use the internet out there, know this: the government advises that if you want your speech to remain anonymous, you put on a mask and head down to the most politically surveilled region in your city to pass out controversial anti-government material that angers the police. But don't say anything on Twitter, or the government can find you, and you won't have the right to step into a courtroom and say, "that's not right."

This is a very important case where free speech, our First Amendment right, is threatened toward extinction after crashing into technology. It seems as if social media users agreed to some invisible TOS or other set of terms to have technology used against us. Privacy SOS continues to give us a ringside seat to the fight and first hand accounting of the case. I encourage you to read the full recounting on Privacy SOS; it's too important to disregard what our government claims about anonymous free speech. In fact it should make you foam at the mouth if you intend to be online yet still believe in the Constitution.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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