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A Matter of Jurisdiction


There have been a couple of new stories over the last few days which illustrate two facets of the same issue.

The first concerns Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Icelandic MP and former WikiLeaks volunteer, who is now fighting a government attempt to get hold of her private messages on Twitter. This has been reported at some length by The Guardian today but in essence the US justice department has issued a subpoena to Twitter asking them to release her private tweets. Twitter contacted her to tell her she has "got ten days to stop it via legal process before Twitter hands it over".

It's also become clear during the day that she's not the only one, it appears they are looking to subpoena Twitter for personal details of Assange, Manning and others connected with Wikileaks - the information wanted includes 'mailing addresses and billing information, connection records and session times, IP addresses used to access Twitter, email accounts, as well as the "means and source of payment"'.

The original subpoena, issued on 14th December, prevented Twitter from disclosing its existence to those being investigated but Twitter's lawyers got this overturned which is why it's coming out now.

Meanwhile here in the UK a case which has some parallels. This time an unknown man and a 4x4 were captured by Google Streetview cameras parked on the drive of a house where a caravan was stolen shortly afterwards. Again you can read the full story, with a photo, on The Register.

What brings this one into the same realm as the first is that the number plate of the 4x4 is blurred so the police asked Google for access to the original image. Google refused unless the police get a court order first.

A couple of things strike me about these two stories. The first is that both Google and Twitter have played this with a very straight bat. Whether the data sought is clearly in the public interest (as in the latter case) or not (and I'm not going to take sides on Wikileaks as I've not got all night) they're not just rolling over when asked to by government agencies but are expecting the agencies to use the courts to get access. That seems like a Good Thing.

But the second one is more troubling and that's the issue of jurisdiction. Twitter is an American company and the US Justice Department has issued a subpoena in District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia (which I assume is somewhere close to Washington DC?). So if Birgitta Jonsdottir wants to contest this she has to do so there, not in Iceland.

As to where her data is who knows, after all it's in "The Cloud", but it's a safe bet to assume it's in the US and in any case wherever it is it's certainly controlled from there.

So what's the moral? Well it seems to me that everyone should at least pause to think about where their data is held, and if it is held in another country's jurisdiction how do they feel about that? For example most of the leading lights in Webmail are US based companies, and even the likes of VirginMedia now outsource their email to Google.

Tags: internet, world Written 08/01/11

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