US Supreme Court Rejects X Corp’s Surveillance Disclosure Challenge

REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo
The new logo of Twitter is seen in this illustration taken, July 24, 2023.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a request by Elon Musk’s X Corp to consider whether the social media company, formerly called Twitter, can publicly disclose how often federal law enforcement seeks information about users for national security investigations.

The justices declined to hear X’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling holding that the FBI’s restrictions on what the company could say publicly about the investigations did not violate its free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

X had said it was “critical” for the justices to take up the case to establish clear standards for when and how tech companies can speak about government demands for confidential information about their users for surveillance.

“History demonstrates that the surveillance of electronic communications is both a fertile ground for government abuse and a lightning-rod political topic of intense concern to the public,” X’s lawyers wrote in its petition to the Supreme Court.

Musk in a post on X called it “disappointing that the Supreme Court declined to hear this matter.”

The long-running lawsuit was filed in 2014, long before Musk acquired Twitter in 2022, after former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden leaked information in 2013 about the extent of U.S. spying and surveillance efforts.

In response to the public outcry over the revelations from Snowden’s leaks, the U.S. government at the request of tech companies – including Alphabet’s GOOGL.O Google, Microsoft MSFT.O, Twitter and Facebook-owner Meta Platforms META.O – agreed to relax restrictions on what they could reveal about data that the government had sought in connection with national security probes.

The revised policy, announced in 2014, allowed companies to disclose in broad ranges rather than in exact figures how often they received of national security-related demands for information.

Congress in 2015 enacted a law allowing companies to disclose limited information about how often they received so-called national security letters and orders under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act seeking user data. But they could still do so only in broad ranges rather than exact figures. Depending on the type of report they published, companies could disclose government demands for data in increments of as little as 100 or as much as 1,000.

Twitter, as X was then known, in its lawsuit said it wanted to go further and disclose the exact number of times in a prior six-month period that the government served it with national-security orders seeking information.

It had submitted a draft report for the FBI before suing that would do just that, but the FBI concluded the information in the report was classified and could not be publicly released.

A trial judge rejected Twitter’s lawsuit, and a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling in March 2023, saying the “government’s restriction on Twitter’s speech is narrowly tailored in support of a compelling government interest.”