Twitter Privacy Battle: Court Rules Social Network Must Turn Over Deleted Tweets

New York State Supreme Court Judge Matthew A. Sciarrino Jr. ordered Twitter to turn over deleted tweets from Occupy Wall Street protesters. Should the microblogging website refuse to share those tweets, the company will be handed a hefty fine.

According to Sciarrino, a contempt of court ruling was the only means he had to punish Twitter since he can’t “put Twitter or the little blue bird in jail.”

A court ruling on June 30 of this year demanded that Twitter hand over the protesters’ data. Twitter argued this week that it needs more time to appeal the court’s initial ruling.

The company has been ordered to hand over the private data by September 14. If Twitter refuses to hand over the data in the next three days, it must provide earnings statements from the last two quarters; those statements will be used to determine the social networks fine.

At the heart of the case is Malcolm Harris, a man who police say disobeyed orders in New York by moving a demonstration to the Brooklyn Bridge. Harris claims he and nearly 700 protesters were instructed to move onto the roadway along the bridge. The prosecution overseeing the case claims Harris was disobedient when asked to follow police orders.

The charge, disobeying an order from the police, is a minor criminal offense.

While the tweets were posted in full view of the general public, Twitter maintains that they remain the private communication of the tweeter. The prosecution argues that posting the tweets publicly makes them public statements and should therefore be handed over.

In July, Sciarrino wrote of public tweeting:

“What you give to the public belongs to the public.”

Twitter argues that if the tweets were indeed public, a subpoenae would not be needed to retrieve them.