A potential class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in California on Monday has accused Twitter of violating state and U.S. privacy laws by intercepting and altering content in users' direct messages. The case hinges on Twitter's practice of automatically scanning user content for hyperlinks and replacing those URLs with custom links to increase its advertising appeal as a referrer.
While Twitter acknowledges it scans and automatically alters public tweets for advertising purposes, it does not seek user permission to do so with direct messages, which are described as "the private side of Twitter," according to the lawsuit.
Filed on behalf of Texas resident Wilford Raney, the case is being handled by Edelson PC, a Chicago-based law firm that specializes in class action litigation related to privacy and technology. The complaint seeks to put a stop to Twitter's scanning of direct messages, as well as actual and punitive damages.
Forensics 'Confirmed Interception'
"[W]hile Twitter acknowledges and publicizes that it replaces hyperlinks found with tweets, it does not disclose that it looks for and replaces hyperlinks in private direct messages," according to the lawsuit. "On the contrary, Twitter represents that the private messages it offers, called 'direct messages,' are readable only by the sender and the recipients."
Alexander T.H. Nguyen, one of the Edelson PC attorneys representing Raney, told us the law firm has an in-house forensics lab that was able to confirm the interception was happening with direct messages on Twitter. While the interception is presumably all automated, the lack of human intervention doesn't mean that a user's privacy isn't being violated, Nguyen said. "Under the law, it's really the interception," he said.
The next step in the case will be to wait for Twitter's response, likely to come in the form of a motion to dismiss, Nguyen said. If the court denies that motion, the law firm would then move forward with a request for class-action certification, he said.
'Ability To Track Users'
We reached out to Twitter's media team for a response from the company but did not receive a reply. Founded in 2006 and headquartered in San Francisco, Twitter reported 316 million monthly active users as of June 30. It handles more than 500 million tweets per day, but the company doesn't provide information about how many direct messages it handles.
This summer, the company announced that it was removing the 140-character limit imposed on public tweets from direct message communications. Users can now send messages of up to 10,000 characters via the private messaging system.
About one-third of all tweets contain links to other sites that are altered by Twitter's link service to redirect traffic through its own service first before taking users to the original URLs, according to the lawsuit. That service enables the company to be "recognized as a hugely influential source of social media traffic," the complaint stated.
By applying the same link service to direct messages, however, Twitter is violating the privacy of its users, the suit alleged.
"Twitter's replacement of hyperlinks in private direct messages demonstrates that Twitter intercepts and reads the contents of every direct message, and it receives several benefits from this practice -- including the ability to track users based on information they would not reveal publicly through default tweets," the lawuit stated. "Yet, Twitter never obtains its users' consent. As such, defendant's methods disregard consumers' privacy rights and violate federal and state law."