Twitter and Privacy Defined by Property Rights

Twitter has been at the forefront of upholding user privacy by making sure requests for Twitter account information are made transparent to the account holders. Last year, Twitter fought to provide members of Wikileaks with notice that their account information was being requested as part of a government investigation. Though the arguments to prevent this disclosure ultimately failed at least the Twitter users were notified of the request which gave them a chance to make their legal arguments.

Twitter is back in the news again in the case of People v. Harris, 2012 WL 1381238 (New York City Criminal Court 2012). This case involves a charge of disorderly conduct related to an OWS protest march held in October 2011. This time, Twitter was given permission to notify the Twitter user that their account information had been subpoenaed. Upon hearing Harris intended to file a motion to quash, Twitter waited to comply with the subpoena pending the court's ruling on the motion.

The primary issue in the People v. Harris case was one of standing. Could Harris intervene to argue that Twitter should not provide access to Harris' Twitter account? The New York City Criminal Court concluded that Harris lacked standing so Harris had no ability to intervene and argue to quash the subpoena. What I think is worth pulling out of the legal reasoning is the part reliance on Twitter's Terms of Service. These terms state that:

By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).

The judge read this term to mean "that the Tweets the defendant posted were not his." Clearly the design of Twitter as a mechanism for publically sharing, not securely withholding, information also greatly contributed to the judges conclusions but it's interesting to see that use rights by a party can also have a substantial impact. The lesson may be that the concept of information ownership and control in a property sense may have important impacts on user privacy.