(Update) Pa.'s AG seeks to unmask Twitter posters

Whether or not it's his goal, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, may be testing the limits of Internet anonymity. Reports say Corbett has issued a subpoena to Twitter's "Custodian of Records" demanding the real identities of two critics who go by the handles "bfbarbie" and "CasaBlancaPA."

Techcrunch.com reported the subpoena yesterday here, attaching what appears to be a copy of the document and citing three CasaBlanca tweets. All were linked to longer, equally anonymous blog posts that may really be driving Corbett's concerns:

- “Is it wrong to mix campaign work with taxpayer business? Apparently not when Tom Corbett does it bonusgate #pagovrace” (tweet, blog post)

- “Corbett erupts at campaign event; security tries to eject questioner #bonusgate #pagovrace” (tweet, blog post)

- “Quiz! Who sputters with indignation over failure to recuse from cases involving contributors? #bonusgate #pagovrace” (tweet, blog post)

Update 1: The AP says the American Civil Liberties Union has stepped forward to help fight the subpoena.


Should Tweets be protected as free speech by the First Amendment?

Update 2: John Morris, general counsel for the Washington-based Center for Democracy & Technology, called the subpoena stunning.

"It's an outrageous and astounding abuse of power, and one that plainly violates the First Amendment and will not be upheld in court," Morris said in an interview. "There's a clear constitutional right to anonymous speech."

Morris said previous attempts to pierce the anonymity of Internet posters have largely centered on businesses that want to fight anonymous critics.

"The fact that a politician would be the one trying to unmask an anonymous critic is even more astounding and outrageous," Morris says. "This country was founded on anonymous political speech. The Federalist Papers were written by people like James Madison and others anonymously. Anonymous speech is very much a part of our poltical culture."

Said Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center: "The obvious point is that there is no crime in criticizing a public official. Heck, many people consider it their patriotic duty. So there is no reason to disclose the identity of the speaker."

Techcrunch filed this update from Twitter's counsel Timothy Yip:

We protect and do not disclose user information except in limited circumstances. We notify a user, if we believe we are allowed to by law, when we receive any request for their information that we may be required to comply with. This policy is designed for maximum transparency and gives users an opportunity to object.

The It's Our Money blog - a partnership of the Daily News and WHYY - followed up this morning, here.

It's Our Money makes this point:

Whether and when it's OK for a court to order the release of an anonymous online poster's identity is still a developing area of the law. But we wonder if this benefits Corbett in any case. If he's successful, the best-case scenario is that he will have the names of two people who don't think he should be governor. Two people with a combined audience of fewer than 400 people (a number that Corbett himself has vastly inflated by issuing a subpoena).

There are millions of people who don't think he should be governor — and millions who think he should. Is there something special about these two? We might find out.

So far, no public response from Corbett or his office, though they would presumably be bound by rules requiring grand-jury secrecy.