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FBI Reimbursed Twitter for Providing User Information

In an email to a Twitter lawyer in February 2021, an unidentified Twitter employee wrote that the company had received over $3.4 million from the FBI since October 2019 as reimbursement for Twitter’s processing of legal requests for user information. Federal law allows companies to seek compensation for complying with government requests for stored records.

That is not evidence that the FBI paid Twitter to “censor” or “suppress” content on the social media platform, as several conservative figures and politicians have claimed or suggested since the email was made public in December.

In a Jan. 29 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” for instance, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the House would be investigating “threats to the First Amendment,” like “the idea that the FBI was paying Twitter $3.4 million to help them suppress information.”

Jordan made a similar assertion in a Dec. 20 tweet, in which he quoted from a New York Post tweet that said the “FBI paid Twitter back more than $3M for doing its dirty work on users, email shows.” In its Dec. 19 story, the Post alleged that the “FBI paid Twitter nearly $3.5 million of taxpayer cash to ban accounts largely linked to conservative voices and target so-called ‘foreign influence’ operations.”

That is not the case, according to the FBI, which told FactCheck.org it only reimbursed Twitter for “searching for, assembling, reproducing, or otherwise providing” information that the agency needed for legal reasons. Even on separate occasions when the FBI contacted Twitter to report user accounts that may have violated Twitter’s terms of service rules, the agency has said “we never direct or ask them to take action.”

Experts in cybersecurity and electronic communications also have said that the nearly two-year-old email message does not mean that the FBI paid Twitter millions of dollars to block certain users or limit public access to specific posts.

The Email

In December, a small group of handpicked journalists began to publish details from internal Twitter documents provided by Elon Musk after he acquired Twitter in the fall. The documents, which Musk said show “free speech suppression” at Twitter before he purchased the company, included, among other things, discussions that employees had about how to handle stories about Hunter Biden’s much-discussed laptop before the 2020 election. The released Twitter documents have been dubbed the “Twitter Files.”

One lengthy Twitter thread about the files — posted by independent journalist Michael Shellenberger on Dec. 19 — included a redacted copy of a Feb. 10, 2021, email that was sent to then-Twitter Deputy General Counsel Jim Baker and Sean Edgett, Twitter’s then-general counsel, from a Twitter employee whose name was concealed.

The email says that in 2019 Twitter’s Safety, Content and Law Enforcement division started “a reimbursement program for our legal process response from the FBI.” Before that time, “Twitter chose not to collect under this statutory right of reimbursement for the time spent processing requests from the FBI,” the email reads. “I am happy to report we have collected $3,415,323 since October 2019!” the unnamed person wrote to Baker and Edgett, who were fired by Musk last year.

The email didn’t provide any more detail on what specifically Twitter had done to earn the reimbursements.

The disclosure of the email led the New York Post and other right-leaning news outlets to publish stories linking the FBI payments to censorship and/or suppression of content on the social media platform. The Post story also noted that the FBI “would often send the company lists of users they wanted investigated for terms of use violations.”

Russell Dye, a spokesman for Jordan, cited the Post story, and a few others, to support Jordan’s contention that “the FBI was paying Twitter $3.4 million to help them suppress information.”

The claim spread widely on social media as well.

The Payment

But as we said, the email is not evidence of what Jordan and other conservative observers have concluded about the payment.

“This claim is false,” Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, wrote in a Dec. 20 Mastodon thread, responding to Musk’s late-2022 tweet claiming that the “government paid Twitter millions of dollars to censor info from the public.”

Stamos said “law enforcement has the ability to get stored communications from companies like Twitter under 18 USC 2703(d),” which usually requires authorization from a judge. The FBI might request such information as part of an investigation. He also said that “companies can demand reimbursement” under the federal regulation that says the government shall pay the entity fulfilling the records request.

“This is absolutely nothing to do with content moderation,” wrote Stamos, who is now director of the Stanford Internet Observatory at the university’s Cyber Policy Center.  

Riana Pfefferkorn, also of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a research scholar who studies electronic surveillance and data access by U.S. law enforcement, told USA Today something similar.

“The Stored Communications Act,” which established the relevant federal regulations on electronic communications and records, “is about the disclosure of information, not the removal of information,” USA Today quoted her saying in a Jan. 18 story. “It does not include any provisions for law enforcement to request removal of user accounts or posts.”

People walk past the FBI building in Washington, D.C., in August 2022. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images.

Pfefferkorn, who used to be outside counsel for Twitter in the early 2010s, reiterated that point in an email to FactCheck.org. She said her analysis was based solely on publicly available information – not knowledge gained while working for Twitter years ago.

On a guidelines page for law enforcement, Twitter says that “non-public information about Twitter users will not be released to law enforcement except in response to appropriate legal process such as a subpoena, court order, other valid legal process, or in response to a valid emergency request.” That private information could include an account’s private tweets, direct messages, IP login information or the associated email address. 

In a statement emailed to FactCheck.org, the FBI indicated it paid Twitter for complying with records requests related to legal matters – not for censoring or suppressing content.

“While we are not able to speak to specific payments, the government is required to provide reimbursement for reasonable expenses directly related to searching for, assembling, reproducing, or otherwise providing information responsive to legal process, such as court orders,” the agency said. “This requirement is set by federal law and the courts are the final arbiters of what is reasonable compensation.”

The FBI previously acknowledged the agency at times contacted Twitter about accounts that may have violated Twitter rules. Some of those emails also are included in the Twitter Files. 

However, in those cases, the FBI said it was up to Twitter whether to act on the tips.

“We are providing it so that they can take whatever action they deem appropriate under their terms of service to protect their platform and protect their customers,” the FBI told Fox News for a Dec. 21 story. “But we never direct or ask them to take action,” the agency said.

We would note that anyone, not just the government or law enforcement, can report a suspected violation of Twitter’s terms of service to the company – and there is no payment for doing so.

“Reimbursement of costs is for a narrow set of activities that providers take in response to formal process (that is, receipt of warrants or subpoenas) all as required by statute,” Randal Milch, co-chair of the New York University Center for Cybersecurity and the former general counsel at Verizon Communications, told us in an email.

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