Twitter gives NYPD info on account behind threats to Mike Tyson show on BroadwayJoel Reidenberg on CBS, August 08, 2012
(CBS News) NEW YORK - The social network Twitter is in the middle of a dispute pitting counter-terrorism and security against privacy and free speech.
The issue is how far authorities can go when lives could be at risk.
Twitter was subpoenaed late Tuesday as part of a New York Police Department investigation into threats reminiscent of the July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in which 12 people were killed and dozens wounded.
Twitter complied with the subpoena, giving police the private information of the user making threats against a theater in Manhattan, and NYPD spokesman Paul Browne told The Associated Press investigators are using the info "as part of our ongoing investigation."
The NYPD boosted security outside the Longacre Theater on Broadway after the profanity-laden threats of mass murder were made on Twitter, starting late last week.
Police say the threats appeared aimed at the audience attending former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson's one-man show.
Among the tweets: "i'm serious, people are gonna die like aurora."
Also: "gosh i'm still making this hit list damn i wanna kill a lot of people."
The NYPD asked Twitter for the identity of the Twitter account holder, but Twitter at first denied the request. That's when the NYPD sought the subpoena.
Twitter wants "to cooperate with law enforcement, but they have to make sure they're respecting their users' privacy, as well," says St. John's University Associate Dean Larry Cunningham, a former New York City prosecutor.
But waiting for the subpoena could "absolutely" have been the difference between life and death, he adds, "so that's why Twitter has an exception, which is they won't wait for the court order if they have a good faith belief someone's life is in danger. ... They're really between a rock and a hard place."
Cunningham has subpoenaed social media companies in the past.
In this case, he says, he would want to learn from Twitter "who registered it (the account), when, where were they when they registered it? What was the IP (Internet Protocol) address of their computer? What's their email address?"
Police want as much information on the account holder as possible, he says.
Twitter reports that it complies with 75 percent of requests made by law enforcement in the U.S. without a subpoena. The company determined that this case didn't warrant disclosing private user information to police without a court order.
Twitter directed CBS News to its guidelines for law enforcement, which say, "If we receive information ... that there is an emergency involving the death or serious physical injury to a person, we may provide information necessary to prevent that harm."
On "CBS This Morning" Wednesday, Twitter co-founder and Executive Chairman Jack Dorsey said of the NYPD subpoena, "I don't know this specific case. I haven't been briefed on it. But we always comply with local laws, and we also have to balance that with defending our users' voice, which we believe strongly in."
How is that balance struck?
"It's really dependent on the court case and the local municipality and what they're doing. It's always a fine balance," Dorsey said.
When asked if it's upsetting to see Twitter being used as it was in this instance, Dorsey replied, "This is how the world wants to use it. It speaks to the power of it as a utility. Just like any other utility, you plug in an electric guitar to an outlet, you plug in a microwave and you can use it in very, very different ways."
This isn't the first time Twitter has faced-off with the NYPD.
In July, the site wouldn't hand over posts made by Occupy Wall Street protesters until a judge ordered it to do so. Twitter has appealed that ruling.
Joel Reidenberg, an expert in Internet law at Fordham University in New York City, says, "The First Amendment protects us speaking anonymously, but the First Amendment does not protect us screaming 'fire' in a crowded theater."
Reidenberg says technology heightens the impact of what's said. "Now, people engage in their communication with their close friends by tweets, and now the whole world sees it," he explains. "So now, all of a sudden, something in the past that would have been a private conversation is now a public conversation."
In essence, when people are online, they're using a megaphone, he adds.
Court battles over Internet speech are cropping up across the country.
In a Virginia Court of Appeals, Facebook has written a friend of the court brief arguing that, when a user "likes" something on Facebook, it's free speech covered by the First Amendment. That follows a case in which six employees of a sheriff's department argue they were wrongfully fired for supporting a candidate who opposed their employer, the sheriff.