By Shaun Tandon
WASHINGTON — A US judge ordered Twitter to hand over data of three users in contact with the controversial website WikiLeaks, rejecting arguments the move violated freedom of speech and privacy.
President Barack Obama’s administration obtained a court order last year seeking information from the Twitter accounts as it considers action against WikiLeaks, which has released a flood of secret diplomatic documents.
One of the accounts belongs to an Icelandic lawmaker, Birgitta Jonsdottir. Iceland’s foreign ministry in January summoned the US ambassador to express “serious concern” about the Twitter order.
Magistrate Judge Theresa Buchanan, based in the Washington suburb of Alexandria, Virginia, rejected the argument made by the three Twitter users’ that the order would have a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech.
“The Twitter order does not seek to control or direct the content of petitioners’ speech or association,” she wrote.
Buchanan also dismissed the argument that the order violated the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which protects people against “unreasonable” searches.
When the trio relayed information to Twitter, they gave up “any reasonable expectation of privacy,” she said.
WikiLeaks, which has strongly criticized the order, said that three Twitter users never worked for the site but that two helped make public a video that showed a 2007 US helicopter strike in Baghdad that killed several people.
The footage appeared to show the Apache pilots mistaking a camera carried by an employee of the Reuters news agency as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
WikiLeaks has since angered US authorities by posting secret documents on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and releasing a slew of internal correspondence among US diplomats around the world.
Aden Fine of the American Civil Liberties Union, the rights advocacy group which defended the Twitter users, said they planned to appeal.
“This is not the last word,” Fine said.
“This decision gives the government the ability to obtain private information about Internet communication in secret, except in extraordinary circumstances,” he said.
“That’s not how our judicial system works and it shouldn’t have been permitted here,” he said.
Fine said the Twitter users planned to take the case to a district judge. Buchanan is a magistrate, a type of legal officer who generally helps courts prepare for trials.
Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which also backed the legal challenge, said that in an era in which third parties hold so much digital information, “the government can track your every move and statement without you ever having a chance to protect yourself.”
Besides Jonsdottir, the Twitter accounts belong to US computer researcher Jacob Appelbaum and Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch volunteer for WikiLeaks.
Buchanan rejected calls to drop the order in light of Jonsdottir’s position as a foreign lawmaker.
The order “does not seek information on parliamentary affairs in Iceland, or any of Ms. Jonsdottir’s parliamentary acts. Her status as a member of parliament is merely incidental to this investigation,” she wrote.
The decision came amid growing controversy over the conditions in custody of Bradley Manning, 23, the soldier suspected of releasing the data to WikiLeaks.
In a letter released Thursday, Manning said that he was treated improperly at the Quantico military base in Virginia, including being stripped at night.
The State Department’s chief spokesman, Philip Crowley, was quoted as telling a forum at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that the treatment of Manning was “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”
Obama told reporters he had inquired about Manning’s treatment and that the Pentagon assured him it was “appropriate.”