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updated 11/10/2011 5:42:37 PM ET 2011-11-10T22:42:37

A federal judge on Thursday sided with government attorneys investigating the disclosure of classified documents on WikiLeaks and upheld a ruling that the website Twitter must turn over certain account information to prosecutors.

Lawyers for three Twitter account holders, all of whom have some connection to WikiLeaks, had argued that forcing Twitter to cooperate with the investigation by turning over the data amounts to an invasion of privacy and chills Twitter users' free speech rights.

But in a 60-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Liam O'Grady in Alexandria, Virginia, affirmed an opinion issued in March by a federal magistrate that the government's tactics were permissible.

Prosecutors have said federal law specifically allows them to seek account information and say it is a routine investigative tool. The law in question — the Stored Communications Act — allows prosecutors to obtain certain electronic data without a search warrant or a demonstration of probable cause. Instead, the government must only show that it has a reasonable belief that the records it seeks are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The court order does not seek the content of the users' tweets, but instead seeks the IP addresses associated with the accounts.

Lawyers for the Twitter users, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say the government can use those IP addresses as a sort of virtual tracking device to pin down the specific computer used by an account holder and with it the user's physical location.

O'Grady's order also allows the government to keep secret any similar orders it sought from other social media sites. The Twitter users' lawyers have speculated that other websites were targeted with similar orders.

"The government shouldn't be allowed to get information about individuals' Internet communications without a warrant, and it certainly shouldn't be able to do it in secret," said Aden Fine, a lawyer for the ACLU who represents one of the three petitioners, Icelandic parliament member Birgitta Jonsdottir.

In a statement, Jonsdottir said, "With this decision, the court is telling all users of online tools hosted in the U.S. that the U.S. government will have secret access to their data. People around the world will take note. ... I am very disappointed in today's ruling because it is a huge backward step for the United States' legacy of freedom of expression and the right to privacy."

The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the case was heard, declined comment on the ruling.

The original order issued in December 2010 at prosecutors' request also sought Twitter account information from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is being held in military confinement amid allegations that he leaked classified documents about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to WikiLeaks. Neither Assange nor Manning was a party in the lawsuit challenging the legality of the Twitter order.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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