Twitter surrenders protester's tweets

2012-09-14 22:20
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New York - Twitter on Friday submitted to a New York court ruling and surrendered tweets sent by an Occupy Wall Street protester accused of disorderly conduct.

Although the protester, 23-year-old Malcolm Harris, is only accused of a minor violation, the battle over access by the authorities to his tweets has brought widespread attention to his case.

In Manhattan Criminal Court, a lawyer for Twitter handed over a thick sealed envelope containing printouts of three and a half months' worth of tweets to Judge Mathew Sciarrino.

Twitter had faced being fined for contempt if it refused to hand over the tweets. A final request for Sciarrino's ruling to be stayed was denied on Friday.

However, in a compromise, the judge agreed to keep the envelope sealed until Harris has a chance to make an appeal in a week.

Prosecutors say they want Harris' tweets because they could prove he knew he was violating the law during a 2011 protest by Occupy on New York's Brooklyn Bridge, when some 700 people were arrested for disorderly conduct.

Harris says he was following police instructions during the march across the bridge. His case goes to trial in December and he faces a maximum of 15 days in jail or a $500 fine.

According to prosecutors, Harris has no right to privacy because messages sent on the micro-blogging site are accessible to anyone who wants to follow an account.

However, tweets from the period in question are no longer available online and Harris, who writes for an online culture site, says police and prosecutors should not be allowed to dig into Twitter's archives.

Speaking after the hearing, Harris denied there is anything incriminating in his tweets and said the thick envelope handed over in court contained "a lot of nonsense".

He said he did not delete tweets to hide potential evidence, but that his account automatically sends old tweets into the archives once a certain number has been reached.

"We are disappointed that Twitter is essentially giving up the fight," Harris' lawyer, Martin Stolar, said.

"The issue is much bigger" than his client's legal troubles, Stolar said after the hearing. "There are millions of Twitter users around this country and around the world who use Twitter as a tool of free speech."

If in the past rules about when police were allowed to search people's belongings were clear, now "it's the electronic storage... that takes us into a different place than we've ever been before", Stolar said. "The old rules of what's a proper search... don't really apply."

Sciarrino said the envelope of tweets would remain sealed until September 21 when another judge hears a challenge brought by Harris against Sciarrino's order.

In addition to that challenge, Twitter is trying to mount its own appeal against Sciarrino's ruling.

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