Science & Technology

Pennsylvania AG Sought to Anonymously Out Anonymous Critics


In May, reports appeared showing that Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett had issued a subpoena to every New Media Douchebag's favorite social app, Twitter, demanding that the service release the "name, address, contact information, creation date, creation Internet Protocol address and any and all log in Internet Protocol addresses" of two anonymous critics. TechCrunch recently posted some sample tweets from the accounts, which, among other things, note security guards attempting to eject questioners at Corbett events and accuse Corbett of "[mixing] campaign work with taxpayer business."

Now, thanks to TechDirt's Mike Masnick, I see that it's come out that not only did Corbett want Twitter to out two of its users for political speech, he wanted to ensure that Twitter never let those users—or anyone else—know they'd been outed. According to a new report in the Philadelphia Bulletin, "the subpoena of Twitter also contained a cover letter asking Twitter not to disclose the action and, if it planned to do so, to contact a deputy attorney general, so the state could seek a court order to prohibit Twitter from revealing the organization had been subpoenaed." So before telling anyone about the order, they were instructed to tell the AG's office so that the AG could attempt to legally bar them from telling anyone about the order.

The Bulletin report speculates that Corbett wanted the users' identities revealed in order to build support for a case he was prosecuting:

It is thought Mr. Corbett wanted the identities because he believed [one of the anonymous Twitter users] to be Brett Cott, a state House staffer convicted in [a case Corbett was prosecuting]. The prosecutors hoped to show a lack of remorse on the part of Mr. Cott, who was sentenced to up to five years in prison on May 21 for using taxpayer resources for political purposes.

Cott may have been convicted, but that's beside the point; this hardly seems like a compelling reason to demand that Twitter reveal user identities. It does, however, seem like a convenient (and rather thin) excuse for a state official to go after an anonymous online critic simply for publishing material that the official doesn't like.