Twitter has come under fire from the UK government for implementing restrictions on police and intelligence agency access to data which could they claim could be potentially used to zero in on terrorist plots, according to the Telegraph newspaper.
The social media platform has withdrawn access to key streams of information which enable the police and MI5 to single out possible plots, in a move to stop user data being from used for “surveillance”.
The Government, said to be using a third-party company for the service of tracking terms related to potential terror attacks, was blocked by Twitter cutting off access to its API. According to the newspaper article, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May commented on the situation thus:
We are protesting this decision. We are in talks with Twitter on getting access to this data.
The spokesman is also reported to have called on social media companies to play an active role alongside the government, in the fight against terrorism.
What makes the issue even thornier is the fact that the disputed data is the very same data that Twitter sells to private sector clients and advertising companies.
A similar case was witnessed in December, when after pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union, Twitter barred US law enforcement agencies from accessing real-time data.
Another incident happened last October, with Twitter suspending data access for Geofeedia, a location-based, social media surveillance system used by government offices, private security firms, marketers and others.
Although a Twitter spokesperson chose not to comment, they did call attention to a blog post from November which discusses its concern about its APIs being used to create products to “track or profile protesters and activists”, including by law enforcement agencies.
Twitter wrote then:
We prohibit developers using the Public APIs and Gnip data products from allowing law enforcement — or any other entity — to use Twitter data for surveillance purposes. Period. The fact that our Public APIs and Gnip data products provide information that people choose to share publicly does not change our policies in this area. And if developers violate our policies, we will take appropriate action, which can include suspension and termination of access to Twitter’s Public APIs and data products.
It has been hinted that discussions are currently underway between the UK government and Twitter for an attempt at resolution. According to a source with inside knowledge of the case, the data being requested would be anonymized.
This latest news is just a continuation of a thread of instances where social media companies have faced increasing political pressure in the UK to help out more actively in the effort to combat terrorism. Just last month, Home Secretary Amber Rudd held talks with Twitter and other major tech platforms to urge them to build tools to tackle the spread of terrorist propaganda on their platforms.
The larger question here, however, remains unanswered: which party is correct in holding on to their beliefs? Is it Twitter, in wanting to defend the rights and freedom that the online space promises? Or is it the government, in wanting to turn social media into a weapon that can be used to combat the very prevalent social evil of terrorism? The definitive answer will only be pieced together as this feud is played out and in the subsequent consequences of decisions on both sides.