Should governments get access to Twitter data?

Initially when I had thought of the topic my immediate reply was “no”, but then I thought as an identity, as an entity, what is Twitter and how much independence it should get when it comes to adhering to various regulations? The problem with Twitter is that although it is a US-based company its users come from all over the world and it has become a platform of freedom of speech and expression. Since I’m not an expert on IT laws and also international laws, I am a bit confused here. When we post on Twitter, are be governed by US laws (because Twitter, I think, operates under US laws) or our individual laws are applicable? For instance, if I’m using Twitter from India, is it Indian laws I abide by or US laws? Take for instance a car; even if it is manufactured in the US, if it has been sold in India and the person is driving it around on Indian roads, he or she has to abide by the Indian traffic rules.

In a recent judgment Twitter has been ordered to turn over data on WikiLeaks supporters by a US district judge. What if some of the backers belong to other countries? Do they become criminals if the US authorities think that they used Twitter to exchange and disseminate “harmful” information? What if I, while living in India, helped WikiLeaks in a manner objectionable to the US law authorities?

Using a real example, what if the Libyan government asked Twitter to share information on people helping the rebels? Would the company comply? What about China? Yes, Google and other companies comply with local laws but what if they reveal the identity of some person and based on that revelation the person is executed by an authoritarian regime? As far as we know, the US begins to cry esoteric expressions like freedom of speech and privacy when it comes to other countries but when it comes to its own land all of a sudden it needs information even when that information is deemed private and confidential.

But then, is Twitter confidentially supreme even when it is being used by murderers, rapists and terrorists? Recently the British government asked Twitter and Facebook to help identify people who got involved in the riots. I don’t know whether Twitter and Facebook handed over the information or not, but logically, it should. Where do we draw the line then? Any country can say that they need information on criminals whether those Twitter users are criminals or not. What about political activists? Many activists prefer to remain anonymous to avoid persecution. There are many politically and socially active individuals on Twitter who are quite vocal and continuously talk against the government and at the same time have good jobs. If their identities are revealed they will not only be targeted by the authorities, they will also lose their jobs and even their careers. Anonymity, especially on the Internet, engenders unparalleled empowerment. You cannot directly confront people you oppose but you can surely spread your opinion unrestrained.

This is a debatable issue and as more and more such platforms evolve, such socio-legal issues will rise again and again. There is a difference between criminals (in the category of murderers, rapists, child abusers, psychopaths and religious fanatics) and political dissenters. There has to be an international consensus on how to deal with such people. Unless there is an international consensus, any government can force Twitter and other social networking platforms to reveal the identity of their users putting them in great peril. What do you think?

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