- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Twitter’s attorneys told a federal judge Tuesday that the Justice Department is violating the company’s right to free speech by barring it from stating the specific number of surveillance requests it has received from the government.

Lawyers for the social networking service and Justice Department sounded off inside an Oakland courthouse Tuesday amid a years-long legal battle brought by Twitter in a bid to provide precise statistics regarding the number of national security letters its received.

National security letters, or NSLs, are FBI-issued mandates used to compel a company into surrendering data about its services or users. Investigators needn’t obtain a judge’s approval to issue an NSL, though, and they’re often served accompanied by gag-orders that prohibit recipients from disclosing details about the surveillance – including the specific amount of NSLs received and the number of users affected.

Currently NSL recipients are only allowed to disclose the number of orders they’ve received in bands of 1000, starting with 0-999. Twitter has taken aim at those supposed national security restrictions, however, and sued the Justice Department in 2014 in a bid “to report meaningful numbers” in the future.

“Even under the most generous First Amendment standard, there is nothing in there that it is a national security harm to say that we received 44 as opposed to 0 to 499,” Twitter attorney Lee Rubin said during Tuesday’s hearing, Ars Technica reported.

Nonetheless, Justice Department attorney Julia Berman told the court Tuesday that the executive assistant director of the FBI’s national security branch believes potential adversaries could benefit if NSL recipients publicized more precise details pertaining to the number of surveillance orders.

“Any specific number would be impossible to have a showing that that particular number would have harm to national security,” Berman said during the hearing.

The case is currently being considered in U.S. District Court for the Norther District of California by U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. If she refuses the government’s request for summary judgement, Twitter could soon be granted discovery and given access to Justice Department information showing how the government decided NSL recipients should only disclose details in bands of 1000, Ars reported.

Overall the FBI authorizes an average of roughly 60 NSLs per day, the White House said in 2013, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based digital rights group. 

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