Twitter filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the FBI and Department of Justice, calling the government's prohibitions on what communications companies can say about national security surveillance a violation of freedom of speech.
According to the lawsuit, Twitter is seeking to publish a transparency report detailing how often the government requests to perform surveillance on its users through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the National Security Letter statutes. Last month, however, government officials told the social media company that information in the report was classified and could not be released.
According to Twitter, the government said it would be illegal to provide information on the number of surveillance requests even if Twitter had received none.
"It's our belief that we are entitled under the First Amendment to respond to our users' concerns and to the statements of U.S. government officials by providing information about the scope of U.S. government surveillance – including what types of legal process have not been received," the company said in a blog post. "We should be free to do this in a meaningful way, rather than in broad, inexact ranges."
The lawsuit goes on to describe Twitter's role in providing a platform for people worldwide — "people who inform and educate others, who express their individuality, who engage in all manner of political speech, and who seek positive change."
Because of the range of people who use Twitter, the company said transparency is particularly important. It published its first transparency report in 2012, which included the number of civil and criminal government requests for account information and content removal, as well as how Twitter responded to those requests.
But that report did not contain information about national security requests, and Twitter began working with government officials on that topic in January. According to Twitter, after five months the government simply replied that "information" in the report could not be published, without specifying what was classified.
"When the government intrudes on speech, the First Amendment requires that it do so in the most limited way possible," the lawsuit said. "The government has failed to meet this obligation."
In 2013, Google filed a motion in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court seeking to publish data about how many requests for surveillance it receives from national security authorities as well as the number of users and accounts the government seeks to perform surveillance on. Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, and LinkedIn later filed similar motions.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice and the five companies reached an agreement to provide some information about surveillance of their networks. The companies could not provide specific numbers of requests, but rather approximations in the range of thousands. Twitter is also arguing that the government does not have the authority to apply those standards.