N.D. Cal. Court Rejects Saudi Journalist’s E-Surveillance Suit Against Twitter

Judge Edward M. Chen issued an opinion siding with Twitter Inc. last Friday, upholding its defenses against a Saudi Arabian journalist and user who claimed his Twitter account was hacked, allegedly enabling the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to target him and those around him. The 32-page opinion found that the claims were either time-barred, deflected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), or deficiently pled.

The October 2021 case filed by Ali Al-Ahmed alleged that between 2013 and 2015, two of Twitter’s former employees, both defendants in the case, accessed user information on Al-Ahmed without authorization and provided it to KSA government officials. Al-Ahmed filed suit arguing that the account hack was an invasion of privacy and that Twitter’s ultimate suspension of his account in 2018 punished him while ratifying its former employees’ conduct. 

The suit stated myriad claims for violation of California and federal electronic communication laws, tort laws, and breach of contract. Twitter moved to dismiss last December.

Judge Chen first ruled that Al-Ahmed had constitutional standing on the basis that Twitter’s invasion of his privacy is a harm in itself. The opinion cited the disclosure of Al-Ahmed’s private information, including his phone number and email address, as constituting harm to his interest in controlling his personal information, also a violation of a statutory right to privacy.

However, many of his claims were untimely, the court said. The plaintiff’s ignorance of the identity of the Twitter employee perpetrators and their precise roles did not toll the statute of limitations, which began to run in 2018, Judge Chen opined. The court also declined Al-Ahmed’s defenses, finding no fraudulent concealment on part of Twitter and that the continuous accrual doctrine did not apply. 

For the remaining claims with 4-year statutes of limitations, the court agreed that Section 230 of the CDA shielded Twitter. Al-Ahmed’s causes of action were related to the suspension of his account, the court said, concluding that such action “‘is generally considered as treating the information content provider as a publisher.’” Judge Chen further rejected Al-Ahmed’s argument that CDA immunity does not apply when the content involved was created by the plaintiff.

Lastly, the court dismissed the breach of contract claim as deficient. The plaintiff did not explain why Twitter’s failure to provide a justification for Al-Ahmed’s account suspension constituted a breach of contract, the opinion said. 

Al-Ahmed has 30 days to amend his complaint. He is represented by Gerstman Schwartz LLP and Twitter by Keker, Van Nest & Peters LLP.