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Monday, November 14, 2011

TOS, Wikileaks and Twitter

Here's another case involving browsewraps or "terms of service" (also known as " the contract that nobody reads") and the way they may interact with other laws in unexpected or surprising ways. A judge recently relied upon Twitter's privacy policy in a case involving Wikileaks. In that case, Judge Liam O'Grady upheld an order allowing federal prosecutors to gain access to information on Twitter accounts held by Wikileaks and by three Wikileaks associates.

The judge held that the individuals had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the Twitter account information, in part, because they were notified via Twitter's privacy policy that the company may retain IP address information. As Christopher Soghoian notes, however, the policy cited by the court is from 2010; the Wikileaks individuals signed up with Twitter in 2008 under another policy. That policy, dated 2007, included this sentence: "We do not associate your IP address with any personally identifiable information to identify you personally, except in case of violation of the Terms of Service."  Not surprisingly, however, the old version also contained the following language which is typically found in online "agreements":

"This Privacy Policy may be updated from time to time for any reason; each version will apply to information collected while it was in place."

I'm not sure whether these "updated from time to time" provisions are or should be valid. In any event, it's important to note that Judge O'Grady specifically did not rule on whether the privacy policy was binding as a contract; rather, the privacy policy was used as evidence weighing in favor of finding that the individuals "voluntarily revealed their IP address information to Twitter."

In other words, while the privacy policy may or may not be binding as a "contract," it was relevant as notice. The standard in determining "reasonable expectation of privacy" under the Fourth Amendment is objective and the consideration of the "totality of the circumstances" included the privacy policy.

But does the language in the 2007 (as opposed to the 2010) policy create a reasonable expectation that the IP address information would not be released to law enforcement authorities. I don't think it does as a matter of interpretation, especially because the 2007 version specifically states that Twitter "may disclose any information to respond "to claims, legal process (including subpoenas)….to prevent or stop any illegal, unethical, or legally actionable activity, or to comply with the law."

[Nancy Kim]

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