Faced with a situation pitting free speech and privacy against public safety, Twitter finally complied with a subpoena served Tuesday to provide the NYPD with information about a user who threatened to recreate the Colorado mass shooting at a Broadway theater where Mike Tyson's one-man show is playing.
NYPD Sgt. Brendan Ryan confirmed Wednesday that the microblogging site has turned over the requested information and that the threat investigation is ongoing.
Twitter initially refused to cooperate with the New York police, who asked for the user's information through the microblogging site's emergency request provision. That provision states that an emergency request can be made if it "involves the danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that Twitter may have information necessary to prevent."
The identity of the person in danger, the nature of the emergency, the Twitter user's name and specific tweets are among some of the information the social networking site said must be included when making the request.
Twitter is estimated to have about 500 million users, who generate more than 340 million tweets daily. It is unknown at this time what factors it considered before declining to tell the NYPD all it knew about the user who had threatened, in specific terms, to kill people at the Manhattan theater.
Some legal experts said the threats were clear and that Twitter took a gamble making the police go for a subpoena. Had the threat been carried out, they believe Twitter could have been held liable for being negligent.
"They should have given over the information [without a subpoena]," said Larry Cunningham, associate professor and associate dean at the St. John's University School of Law. "Based on the specific nature of the threat, I think that satisfies the policy."
"This is not someone saying I was going to blow up the Earth with a ray gun," Cunningham, a former criminal prosecutor at the Bronx District Attorney's office, said. "I think they took a high risk by making the police department get a subpoena. They should have erred on the side of caution. If God forbid something happened, all eyes would have been on Twitter. A good lawyer would say Twitter was negligent."
The Twitter user being sought by the NYPD threatened to carry out a mass shooting similar to the July 20 incident in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed and 58 wounded. The threats were brought to the police's attention on Aug. 3.
Tweets such as "i'm serious, people are gonna die like aurora" and "gosh i'm still making this hit list damn i wanna kill a lot of people" led the New York police to beef up security at the Longacre Theater in midtown Manhattan.
But that wasn't enough for Twitter to give in to police demands.
Pedram Tabibi, an attorney practicing business litigation social media law at Meltzer, Lippe, Goldstein & Breitstone, said the social networking site was placed in a unique situation.
"They have to balance privacy and the free speech rights of its users while being aware of public safety," he said. "They made a judgment call because they had the information. Twitter has to be careful. It has to balance the duty to users [with the need] to help prevent injury to others."
Tabibi said the user information should have been given up because "serious and specific threats" were made. Still, according to the attorney, in deciding to not release information to the NYPD, Twitter was safeguarding its reputation and its business model. "If people see Twitter giving up without a fight it could turn off a lot of people," he said.
One of the things users enjoy on Twitter is anonymity, if they so choose. But Tabibi said this anonymity may only go up to a point: "This should be a lesson to individuals and companies -- because the information was obtained --that while you are afforded protection and privacy on social media, you can't go out there and say what you want to say and think that because you are behind the Internet and a fictitious account name you will be protected."