Is Your IP Address Private Information? Is it Protected by the First Amendment?

In what is being seen as a ‘huge blow’ to privacy, a US court has ordered Twitter to open the account of an Icelandic MP and former WikiLeaks volunteer Birgitta Jonsdottir and hand over its contents to the US authorities.

Although Twitter is a social networking service where your “tweets” are seen by everyone, the service also includes a private messaging system where only the sender and recipient can see the messages.

A US judge has ruled that Twitter must release the details of Birgitta’s account, including the IP addresses used to access Twitter, along with those of two other Twitter users linked to WikiLeaks.

Jonsdottir believes that her account information is wanted to try and build a case against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Also the Justice Department has been interested in Jonsdottir’s account for almost a year because of her involvement in WikiLeaks’ release of a video showing a US military helicopter shooting two Reuters reporters in Iraq.

Clearly, this is a high profile case. An MP from a foreign country, WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. However, has Birgitta broken any laws in the USA or in Iceland? Is she under arrest or being held for trial? Is there a warrant for her extradition from Iceland?

The parallel in the offline world would be that a law enforcement agency wanted to enter into Birgitta’s house and search through her private and personal papers. The law enforcement agency would need a very good reason to ask a judge for permission. And likely they wouldn’t get it. But it seems as if in the online world civil rights are different.

In October, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a group representing MPs from 157 countries, passed a resolution condemning the actions by the US Justice Department.

“In all countries, freedom of expression is essential to democracy; citizens cannot exercise their right to vote or take part in public decision-making if they lack free access to information and ideas and are unable to express their views freely,” wrote the IPU.

The IPU also quotes Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which upholds the right of everyone to freedom of opinion and expression; it stipulates that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers;

There also seems to be legal vagaries. Jonsdottir is not a US citizen and the information in her Twitter account was created and used outside the USA. However Twitter is a US company. Clearly the international legal situation concerning the use of social media, does not appear to provide sufficient guarantees to ensure freedom of expression or a right to privacy.

What is ironic is that the US courts diligently uphold the first amendment with its rights for freedom of speech without government interference and the rights of the press to publish news, information and opinions, again, without government interference. Unless it seems you are an Icelandic MP.

Along with requests for her IP addresses, the Justice Department has demanded bank account details, usernames, screen names, mailing and other addresses.

It is clear that IP addresses should be considered as private information as by analyzing them the authorities can determine the location of the computer used to access Twitter.

To protect yourself (and Birgitta would be advised to do the same) use Hide My IP, which allows you to conceal your identity and location online while encrypting your Internet connection.

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