Dec. 29, 2011 at 7:05 PM ET
An Israeli law center said Thursday it is threatening to sue Twitter unless the social network cuts off access to groups, including Hezbollah, that are considered terrorist organizations by the United States.
The law center, Shurat HaDin, describes itself as being "dedicated to enforcing basic human rights through the legal system," and says it has represented "victims of terrorism in courtrooms around the world."
In a letter to San Francisco-based Twitter, attorney and Shurat HaDin executive director Nitsana Darshan-Leitner wrote that "it has come to our attention that Twitter, Inc. provides social media and associated services" to such groups as Hezbollah and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab — labeled as "foreign terrorist organizations" (or FTOs) by the United States.
"Please be advised that providing social media and other associated services to terrorist groups is illegal and will expose Twitter, Inc. and its officers to both criminal prosecution and civil liability to American citizens and others victimized by terrorisms carried out by Hezbollah, Al-Shabaab or other FTOs."
Shurat HaDin specifically contends that Twitter's service goes against a 2010 Supreme Court case declaring unlawful "any assistance or support" to terrorist organizations.
The law center, which has a New York office, wants Twitter to "immediately provide us written confirmation" that it will "permanently" discontinue access to Hezbollah, "Al-Manar TV, Al-Shabaab and any other FTOs ... Absent such confirmation, we will seek all available relief and remedies against Twitter, Inc. in all relevant jurisdictions."
A spokesman for Twitter said the company does not have any comment about the potential lawsuit or the issue of allowing access to the groups. But it has long made a point of saying it does not take political sides, and favors free speech.
The short-messaging microblog network, which limits posts to 140 characters, has come under fire in recent months for being used as a tool for disruption. Some disruption is considered positive, such as the role Twitter played in helping to foment the Arab Spring. But not all disruption is lauded.
Twitter, as well as Facebook and RIM's BlackBerry phones, were all cited by British officials as the means for coordinating flash mobs and rioting last summer in Britain. More recently, in the U.S., Sen. Joe Lieberman, (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, is leading an effort to get Twitter to block some accounts that are pro-Taliban.
The site, in operation for five years, has been the frequent target of legal action by activist groups and celebrities seeking to stop or pull down information they don't like. It generally refuses unless the account in question misrepresents itself as belonging to someone else.
Otherwise, Twitter says, it will comply only with legal U.S. court orders, and it has often clashed with law enforcement agencies that seek to go further.
In January, Twitter successfully appealed the Justice Department's decision to keep under seal a subpoena for account records of a member of the Icelandic Parliament with ties to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
Earlier Thursday, Twitter was ordered to hand over information about the account of a user active in the Occupy Boston protests. The case came to public attention after the company refused prosecutors' request to keep the subpoena secret and alerted the account holder that his information was being sought
Twitter has more than 100 million active users around the world who say they use the free service at least once a month.
An analyst at the Center for Naval Analysis, Will McCants, told NPR this week there is no research so far that shows terrorists are getting many new recruits via social media like Twitter.
"Social media is interesting as a new outlet for terrorist groups, but in terms of achieving al-Qaida's goal or the Taliban's goal of creating new recruits. ... I think it is a complete disaster," he said.
But, said Darshan-Leitner in the Shurat HaDin press release, Hezbollah "and its terrorist networks have entered the global world of social media to further their murderous agenda. Twitter’s complicit service to known foreign terrorist organizations is not only morally irresponsible, it is also illegal. Twitter needs to take responsibility for the platform it is providing to known terrorists and cease and desist immediately. Their failure to do so exposes them to severe liability."
Shurat HaDin practices what it calls "Pro-Israel Lawfare." It partners with lawyers in countries around the world to sue governments, financial institutions and companies that it says knowingly or unknowingly assist anti-Israeli terrorist organizations.
The group's mission, it says, is to "bankrupt the terror groups and grind their criminal activities to a halt — one lawsuit at a time."
In February, Darshan-Leitner was co-counsel in an action brought by five readers who sued former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his publishers for $5 million, alleging that in his 2006 book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," Carter made "false and knowingly misleading statements intended to promote the author's agenda of anti-Israel propaganda."
The case, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, was dropped in May.
In September, Darshan-Leitner threatened to sue about 150 U.S. colleges for allegedly refusing to fight anti-Semitism on their campuses.
Msnbc.com's M. Alex Johnson contributed to this report.