May 192010
 
 May 19, 2010  Posted by  Online

Earlier today, I posted a link to a TechCrunch story by Robin Wauters about how Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett, now the Republican candidate for Governor, had a grand jury subpoena Twitter to appear before the grand jury to “testify and give evidence regarding alleged violations of the laws of Pennsylvania.”  As part of the subpoena, Twitter is to provide “any and all information” pertaining to two Twitter accounts, @bfbarbie and @CasaBlancaPA.   Both of those accounts, and their companion blog, CasablancaPA, have been the source of frequent criticism of Corbett.

Not surprisingly, the blogosphere is lighting up over this subpoena, with most commenters speculating that Corbett is abusing his office and power to uncover the names of people who have anonymously criticized him.  For his part, Corbett has not made any statement about the nature of the investigation or what Pennsylvania laws might have been violated. As WTAE reports:

During a Wednesday afternoon campaign rally at the Allegheny County Airport in West Mifflin, Corbett told Channel 4 Action News, “I can’t comment on that right now. That’s something that it’s a grand jury matter.”But Corbett did say the legal action is not about targeting people on Twitter who say things that he doesn’t like. Instead, he said this is related to an investigation.

Corbett was also quoted as saying:

“I don’t care about Twitter. If people — they twitter all the time. You know, I read it once. In fact, I only read — my only use of Twitter was to watch what you guys were saying during the (Bonusgate) trial. That’s how I kept on top of it day by day.”

So why, then, does Corbett want to know the identities of the two Twitter account holders? What did they tweet in 140 characters that is relevant to the grand jury? And if it was their blog entries that contain information relevant to an investigation, why not subpoena the account information on the blog? Is Corbett gambling that Twitter won’t put up as much of a fight as Google would?

And did Corbett inform the grand jury that he was asking them to subpoena the information on two people who had been highly critical of him?

Civil liberties groups are already watching this case. WTAE reported that:

Vic Walczak, of the ACLU’s Pittsburgh office, told Channel 4 Action News that the organization expects to get involved in this case.

“Attorney General Corbett’s subpoena to Twitter for identity information about people who have been criticizing him raises grave concerns about abuse of the grand jury process to retaliate against political critics and opponents, a most serious First Amendment violation,” Walczak said. “People in this country have a right to criticize government officials and to do so anonymously, as did Thomas Payne and the authors of the Federalist Papers.”

Matt Zimmerman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation also has concerns based on what’s been publicly revealed. In a statement to PogoWasRight.org, Zimmerman noted that EFF has had frequent concerns about attempts to unmask anonymous Does because of critical speech, but

the concerns are heightened even more in this context, when you have the chief law enforcement officer of the state going after people who said mean things about him. It doesn’t look very good.

Zimmerman notes that things may not be what they seem, however, and that “we may all be wrong.”

Has there been an abuse of power or abuse of process? Without more facts, it is impossible to know. What is clear to this blogger, however, is that at the very least, Corbett has a serious public perception problem over the use of his police power in this case.

For its part, Twitter has apparently notified the account holders so that they can fight the subpoena, and the bloggers note that they are trying to arrange for legal representation.

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