The FBI paid Twitter millions of dollars to cover the costs of processing the agency's requests. "I am happy to report we have collected $3,415,323 since October 2019!" wrote someone with Twitter's Safety, Content, & Law Enforcement (SCALE) team in a February 2021 email, according to internal messages reported by journalist Michael Shellenberger today.
"In 2019 SCALE instituted a reimbursement program for our legal process response from the FBI," explained the email, whose author is redacted. "Prior to the start of the program, Twitter chose not to collect under this statutory right of reimbursement for the time spent processing requests from the FBI."
The internal email was reported as part of an ongoing project known as the Twitter Files, in which new Twitter CEO Elon Musk gave a small group of journalists access to a trove of internal communications and documents on the condition that stories derived from this material be reported on Twitter first. Reason's Robby Soave has written about previous installments of the Twitter Files here, here, here, and here.
Shellenberger's new installment centers on Twitter's decision to temporarily block a New York Post story about Hunter Biden just before the 2020 election. This was also the subject of the first Twitter Files thread, from Matt Taibbi.
Among other things, the new thread details how Trump-era FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) warnings about potential foreign meddling in the 2020 election drove excessive caution from Twitter officials when the Hunter Biden story first came out.
"Given the SEVERE risks here and lessons of 2016, we're erring on the side of including a warning and preventing this content from being amplified," Twitter's former head of Trust and Safety Yoel Roth wrote in an internal Google Doc discussion about the Post story.
Emails and documents explaining Twitter deliberations here are interesting—though hardly the sort of smoking guns many on the right are making them out to be. Taken all together, they showcase a company trying hard to balance competing concerns, including free speech, electoral integrity, national security, freedom of the press, public relations, and lawmaker demands, sometimes acquiescing to and sometimes pushing back against government requests.
21. Despite Twitter's pushback, the FBI repeatedly requests information from Twitter that Twitter has already made clear it will not share outside of normal legal channels. pic.twitter.com/WyI03iZ0WF
— Michael Shellenberger (@ShellenbergerMD) December 19, 2022
Twitter's internal communications do not suggest a company itching to tilt the 2020 election or to benefit Joe Biden but one still reeling from accusations of aiding Russian trolls during the 2016 election and facing immense pressure from government forces not to let it happen again. Twitter ultimately made the wrong call in suppressing the Hunter Biden laptop story on the grounds that it may stem from hacked materials, but it was also an understandable mistake (and one quickly corrected) given the totality of the circumstances.
If there are real villains here, it's FBI and DHS agents excessively vigilant about potential foreign propaganda in 2020 and overzealous about countering election-related misinformation. But given everything that happened on this front in 2016—the (relatively pathetic) attempts at a Russian influence campaign and the subsequent years of hysteria about it—it's not terribly surprising that authorities were on high alert. And warning social media companies to be on high alert, too, is actually pretty far down on the list of damning things these agencies do.
There's been ample insinuation that these agencies were politically motivated. But all of this was happening at a time when President Donald Trump was in power and his people were running DHS and the FBI. Rather than agencies intent on swaying the 2020 election for Biden, their actions seem like run-of-the-mill paranoia and attempts at control.
This brings us back to the FBI. In the last installment of the Twitter Files, Matt Taibbi reported on some of the agency's content moderation requests, many of which were related to potential election misinformation. Twitter looked into the flagged tweets and accounts, sometimes complying with the FBI and sometimes not.
"It's not that this information was totally unsuspected," as my colleague Robby Soave wrote about Taibbi's last thread. "It was already abundantly clear that government officials were in regular communication with social media companies and flagging content for moderation. But it's useful to see the scale of that interaction as well as some specific examples. The extent to which Big Tech and Big Government are working in tandem to crack down on dissent, contrarianism, and even humor is frankly disturbing."
The same could be said about Shellenberger's latest installment, with perhaps the exception of the FBI payout.
The money seems to be related to FBI requests for Twitter data.*
Federal law grants government entities the right to access, with a court order, certain stored communications from "electronic communication service" providers. These are known as 2703(d) requests. To get a court order, the government must show that there are "reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."
Federal law also states that "a governmental entity obtaining the contents of communications, records, or other information" allowed under 2703 and related statutes "shall pay to the person or entity assembling or providing such information a fee for reimbursement for such costs as are reasonably necessary and which have been directly incurred in searching for, assembling, reproducing, or otherwise providing such information."
Twitter's "Guidelines for law enforcement" state under a section titled "Cost reimbursement" that "Twitter may seek reimbursement for costs associated with information produced pursuant to legal process and as permitted by law (e.g., under 18 U.S.C. §2706)."
Shellenberger's latest Twitter Files do not contain any more information than the one email about the reimbursement program, bringing up many more questions than it answers. Processing what kind of requests? Which other companies are being reimbursed? To the tune of how much? For how long? It doesn't say.
Meanwhile, Musk spun this revelation as "Government paid Twitter millions of dollars to censor info from the public."
But the reimbursement money does not seem to be related to FBI content moderation requests.
There are reasons to be concerned about 2703(d) requests and the way the government obtains social media data. But these are different concerns than those that Musk brings up.
*CORRECTION: This post previously misstated the nature of the FBI reimbursement money. It has been updated to correct this and to add more context about the laws surrounding social media data requests and reimbursements. Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, answers some questions about the program in this Mastodon thread. Techdirt's Mike Masnick also has a good rundown here.