Pennsylvania politician attacks free speech on Twitter

Can you post anonymous critiques of political figures on Twitter? Not if Pennsylvania attorney general Tom Corbett has his way.

If they were ever to hold a Twitter "Twit of the Year" contest, I know who'd get my vote: Pennsylvania Attorney General (and Republican candidate for governor) Tom Corbett.

Not that I give a rodent's behind about politics in the Keystone State (though the Webcam shenanigans at those Lower Merion schools give me pause), but Corbett has proven himself more than worthy of the title, given his recent actions surrounding Twitter.

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Two weeks ago, a grand jury Corbett is using to investigate political corruption in PA issued a subpoena to Twitter, demanding the "name, address, contact information, creation date, creation Internet protocol address, and any and all log-in Internet addresses" of two anonymous tweeters who've issued a steady stream of tweets criticizing the attorney general and his investigation.

This is stupid on so many levels I don't know where to begin.

First, let's talk about the Streisand effect, which can be summarized as "the quickest way to spread information across the Net is by attempting to squash it." The tweeps whose identities have been sought -- @BFbarbie and @CasablancaPA -- just had their follower counts boosted by about 1,000 percent. Barbie went from around 60 followers on Wednesday to nearly 600 as I write this; Casablanca's following grew from 120 to nearly 800 -- not Ashton Kutcher-style numbers, but still.

Even better, the CasablancaPA blog where many of these tweets were directed saw its readership grow sevenfold, according to one of its posts. I'm sure it's even bigger now.

The ACLU is now representing the pair, and that news brought in the big guns of the media to cover the story -- the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Post, Time, Keith Olbermann, and various other radio shows and Websites.

As one of the CasablancaPA bloggers writes, "Nice campaign work, geniuses."

Stupid politician trick No. 2: Does anyone stuck back in 1957 at the Corbett for Governor headquarters understand what Twitter is or how it works? (Yes, that was a rhetorical question.) The odds of Twitter having the users' real names and addresses are next to nil, though they probably have the IP information. They probably also have some kind of email address, but the subpoena didn't ask for that.

And why didn't Corbett, et al. subpoena Blogger? That's where most of the criticism is coming from. As regular readers of this blog no doubt remember, Google quite willingly turned over information from an "anonymous" blogger in the Liskula Cohen/Skanks in NYC case, even before a judge ruled on whether the blog posts constituted actual libel. Since Corbett's subpoena claims the accounts are related to "alleged violations of the laws of the Commonwealth" -- a criminal case, not a civil suit -- that should be a slam dunk. Right?

Unfortunately that subpoena fails to identify which laws these bloggers allegedly broke, nor is anyone from Corbett's office willing to enlighten the public as to what crimes they've committed. Reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette suggest prosecutors believe one of the tweeter/bloggers to be a convicted former legislative aide, and they're attempting to use these tweets and blog posts to earn him a stiffer sentence.

As I write this, Twitter has not complied with the subpoena or turned over any information. IANAL, but I'd be surprised if it ended up having to do so.

Stupid trick No. 3: First Amendment or Worst Amendment? Is it necessary to point out the prosecutors are Republicans, the prosecuted are Democrats, and this is an election year? I didn't think so. The blogs and Twitter accounts claim Corbett is abusing the grand jury process to selectively investigate and prosecute Demos while leaving his Republican brethren largely untouched.

I can't say if those claims are true. But I know about them now, and I didn't yesterday. And if this Twitter subpoena is indicative of the way Corbett's investigation has been run, I'm inclined to believe they are true, at least in part.

So let's suppose Corbett is right and at least one of the tweeter/bloggers is the guy who got nailed. Does that erase his First Amendment rights? Without some kind of actual crime attached to the Twitter content (search the hashtags #bonusgate or #pagovrace and let me know if you see any, because I don't), it's hard to see this as anything but an egregious attempt to intimidate critics of Corbett and squash anonymous free speech.

Remember that this country got its start from anonymous critics. If Thomas Paine were alive today, he'd surely be blogging and tweeting. (You'd think all those Tea Party types would be all over this case -- so far, not so much.) And isn't Philadelphia known as the Cradle of Liberty? Perhaps if Corbett makes it to the governor's mansion, that will change, too.

Should politicians be forced to pass an Internet literacy test before running for office? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This story, "Pennsylvania politician attacks free speech on Twitter," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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