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Twitter's in-house legal counsel responds to subpoena by printing out a bunch of tweets

Posted by: Laurence Simons 17/09/12

In the future, which obviously within five years will be a smouldering dystopia, we will pay for goods and services with printed out tweets in sealed envelopes. A gallon of water will cost you two pages of tweets. A bag of dirty rice will set you back four pages double-sided and a retweet. The antidote to whatever it is that has left our proto-society ravaged will cost you eight pages of tweets, from parody accounts exclusively. Sorry, but that is the future. Just be glad that you're prepared.

But until then, printed out pages filled with tweets will be at best useless and stupid and at worst a political pawn in a subpoena game, which is just what they became this week. As Ars Technica reports, Twitter was forced to hand over tweets and data from an Occupy Wall Street protester's account on Friday (September 14th), after being ordered to do so by New York criminal court. The company was subpoenaed for defending one Malcolm Harris's information following his arrest alongside 700 others at the site of the Occupy movement last year, and, facing a fine for failing to deliver the information, delivered it. This is sort of A Big Deal.

Let's for a moment ignore the fact that Twitter delivered the information in a sealed envelope and so still in theory can obtain a writ that prevents the court from seeing it, because that's just a game of legal cat and mouse. What's important here is, well, sort of everything else.

It all started earlier this month, when the New York Times profiled Twitter's chief lawyer Alexander Macgillivray. For artistic merit we will refer to Macgillivray as 'a knot in a long piece of rope that people are playing tug-of-war with', because that sort of aptly sums his role up: as the paper notes, Macgillivray is in the fulcrum on which there is a fine balance being struck between the information requests of international governments (one team of tuggers) and defending the free speech of the users who make the website what it is (other tuggers). It sounds tricky, doesn't it? Especially when clouded by ham-fisted analogies. And double especially in that Macgillivray's task sees him wade into unchartered legal territory teeming with internet words and international legal threats.

So with this envelope full of tweets business, it seems the first international government to truly flex its muscles and pull the tug-of-war rope in one direction over the other is that of the US. With its subpoena, New York criminal court is sort of opening the floodgates for a number of other international sovereignties to enforce their laws onto the internet company. For those in in-house legal jobs at Twitter, it means an increased workload and some decidedly dicey politics. For the website's users, it's probably even worse news. And for those in the position of defending digital companies from data access requests? 'Tweet in envelope'-gate should be pretty important, too. Watch this space.