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Twitter Sues US Justice Dept for Right to Reveal Surveillance Requests

FILE - Electronic cables are silhouetted next to the logo of Twitter, Sept. 23, 2014.

Twitter Inc. sued the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday, intensifying its battle with federal agencies as the Internet industry's self-described champion of free speech seeks the right to provide more specifics about the extent of U.S. government surveillance.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Northern California, Twitter argued that the current rules prevent it from even stating that it has not received any national security requests for user information.

Twitter said the restrictions violate the Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Tech companies have sought to clarify their relationships with U.S. law enforcement and spying agencies in the wake of revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that outlined the depth of U.S. spying capabilities.

Twitter's lawsuit follows an agreement between Internet companies like Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. with the government about court orders they receive related to surveillance.

The agreement freed the companies to disclose the number of orders they received, but only in broad ranges. A company that offers email services, for example, would be able to say it received between zero and 999 orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court during a six-month period for email content belonging to someone outside the United States.

"The U.S. government has taken the position that service providers like Twitter are even prohibited from saying that they have received zero national security requests, or zero of a particular type of national security request," Twitter said in its complaint.

The Justice Department responded to the lawsuit with a statement on how it has worked with other companies.

"Earlier this year, the government addressed similar concerns raised in a lawsuit brought by several major tech companies," Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said."There, the parties worked collaboratively to allow tech companies to provide broad information on government requests while also protecting national security."

The American Civil Liberties Union praised Twitter's action, saying in a statement that the company was doing the right thing by "challenging this tangled web of secrecy rules and gag orders."

Twitter, which allows its 271 million monthly users to send 140-character text messages, has traditionally taken an aggressive posture challenging government censorship requests and has previously described itself as "the free-speech wing of the free-speech party."

Twitter's lawsuit said the company has discussed the matter with the government for several months. In a meeting with officials from the DOJ and the FBI in January, Twitter argued that it should not be bound by the disclosure limits that the government offered to Google and the other companies.

Twitter submitted a draft transparency report with more detailed data to the FBI in April, but the agency denied Twitter's request to publish the draft five months later.

"We've tried to achieve the level of transparency our users deserve without litigation, but to no avail," Twitter said in a blogpost on Tuesday.

Twitter said it was "asking the court to declare these restrictions on our ability to speak about government surveillance as unconstitutional under the First Amendment."