“Move over, Mark Zuckerberg. Word is Elon Musk has a new adversary: Jack Smith.
The Justice Department special counsel investigating Donald Trump obtained a search warrant in January for records related to the former president’s Twitter account, recently unsealed documents show. The platform took the issue to court and eventually gave up after it was walloped with a $350,000 fine for contempt. So make that $44,000,350,000 that Musk has sunk into the floundering social media service.
The news has led to protestations from angry progressives that Musk, notoriously fond of trolling the libs and currying favor among conservatives, committed a grave offense against the law. Meanwhile, accusations coming from the right complain of yet another abuse by the “deep state.” But both sides are missing the point: Technology companies should stick up for users, even when the user is Donald Trump. What they shouldn’t do is pick and choose which users to stick up for.
Twitter might well be a warehouse of evidence for federal prosecutors. Plenty of non-public information on the site could aid the feds, such as direct messages or draft tweets or, as some have speculated, IP addresses that could theoretically indicate that posts urging peace came from devices not belonging to the then-commander in chief. And Twitter’s objection in this affair wasn’t to turning over data generally — it was to a gag order not to inform the target of the search that it had done so.
This makes sense. Internet platforms know they’re stores of knowledge, not only about democracy-disdaining politicians who’ve turned them into portable bully pulpits but also about ordinary people all over the world — including, sometimes, democracy-building advocates and activists whom repressive regimes would like to shut up or shut down. That’s why they have a history of pushing back against incursions on privacy, both on an individual basis and more broadly.
See, for instance, Facebook’s failed lawsuit a few years ago to win the right to challenge search warrants in the state of New York, or its successful efforts to refuse to turn over users’ communications to New Jersey authorities in real time without a wiretap order. Or look at what the so-called Twitter Files, purported to reveal liberal bias at the firm when it was run by founder Jack Dorsey, show about trust and safety head Yoel Roth resisting pressure from the FBI to fork over data outside of the usual legal process.
These platforms generally have standards to help them balance complying with the law and protecting civil liberties, both here and abroad. Twitter’s website says that when served with legal requests the company may try to narrow those it considers overreaching, ask for additional context or otherwise object.
Anyone who would find fault with Musk’s Twitter for merrily acceding to a demand from Trump’s Justice Department to comb through Joe Biden’s account while keeping the whole thing a secret shouldn’t complain about the company batting an eye when Biden’s Justice Department came calling.
But here’s the problem: Twitter might have had protocols in place to review law enforcement overtures. X, the recently renovated (or more accurately, demolished) version of the platform, doesn’t really appear to — whatever its fine print says.
The transparency updates that the platform used to issue regularly on requests agreed to and rebuffed have, by all accounts, ceased. And there might not be much rebuffing to speak of anyway. Global tech watchdog Rest of World notes that the company’s self-reported entries to an industry-wide database didn’t include a single refused entreaty in the initial six months of Musk’s ownership — including from governments with sketchy records on human rights.
The kicker: The special counsel’s team attempted to submit its search warrant via the dedicated webpage for the process — only to find that, like so much else about Twitter these days, it no longer worked.
The trouble, in short, isn’t what Twitter did — though acting as though it planned to comply until the deadline passed, at which point it suddenly produced all sorts of objections, was certainly not the way to go. The question is why. Going to bat for users even when the user is Trump is exactly what we should want platforms to do; going to bat for users only when they are Trump is not.
The surest way to prove critics wrong would be to begin defending everybody, not just former presidents and front-runners for the next GOP nomination. The surest way to prove them right is to change nothing at all. Then Musk and his conservative allies might want to stop yammering about the left-wing conspiracy as they busy themselves with their own.“