San Francisco District Attorney subpoenas Twitter feeds in Columbus Day riot case

Twitter says it “provides a voice for liberty around the globe” — an image the microblogging service promoted during the populist uprisings of the Arab Spring. But it remains to be seen how it reacts to activist controversies right here at home.

When an Oct. 6 Columbus Day protest in San Francisco turned nasty, 19 demonstrators were charged with a laundry list of crimes, including rioting and unlawful assembly. Before moving in with batons on the crowd of hundreds, police were splattered with paint bombs and seized protesters’ backpacks, which they said contained weapons such as hammers and ice picks.

The District Attorney’s Office subsequently subpoenaed Twitter for information from the accounts of two demonstrators whose attorneys are trying to quash that request. The district attorney is seeking “subscriber information” for Robert Donohoe and Lauren Smith, plus all photos, mentions, tweets and Twitter users following or followed by  the pair. Their accounts appear to have been deleted.

The District Attorney’s Office declined to discuss the case, but its subpoena suggests prosecutors hope to demonstrate a premeditated attempt to cause havoc.

“This account may contain communications between Robert Donohoe and the above-mentioned defendants that would tend to show there was a conspiracy or agreement to stage a riot, to unlawfully assemble, and to wear a disguise while partaking in criminal activities,” the subpoena said.

Hundreds of people arrested in other protests in The City were mostly cited and released. But authorities are taking a harder line in this case because demonstrators were linked to prior vandalism in the Mission district, where trouble erupted weeks earlier over the police shooting of a suspected gang member. And last spring, dozens of anarchists there conducted what Police Chief Greg Suhr called a “sprint of vandalism” that ended with numerous cars and storefronts smashed.

Twitter declined to discuss the subpoenas or demonstration, but has been more forthcoming regarding similar cases elsewhere. After an Occupy Wall Street demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge last year, authorities subpoenaed more than three months’ worth of Twitter activity from one protester.

Malcolm Harris, whose attorney said he will plead guilty to the charges against him, has become the center of a fight over social media privacy. Although Twitter turned over his communications in September under the threat of contempt and court fines, the company has partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to seek more protections for users through a New York appeals court. Twitter took particular issue with a New York Supreme Court judge’s ruling that Harris couldn’t attempt to quash the subpoena on his own volition, because the tweets were actually the property of the company, not the user.

Donohoe and Smith were allowed to fight the subpoena, and there is nothing to suggest that Twitter will intervene in their case. Josh Davis, Donohoe’s attorney, said the company is aware of the situation and has agreed to withhold account information — at least until the subpoena issue is decided on Jan. 4.

Spokesman Jim Prosser declined to say how or whether Twitter stores information deleted by users. Prosser said Twitter notifies users before releasing information to outsiders, unless prevented by a judge.

A July “transparency report” by Twitter showed 679 government requests for user information in the U.S. in the prior six months. The company said it complied with 75 percent of those requests.

dschreiber@sfexaminer.com

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