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Twitter dodges suit by Saudi Arabia critic over suspended account

A judge found a critic of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not adequately show Twitter took unlawful action by removing his account during an espionage incident.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Saudi Arabia dissident whose Twitter account was suspended struck out Tuesday in his lawsuit against the social media giant.

U.S. District Judge Edward Chen said in an order Tuesday that all three of Ali Al-Ahmed’s amended claims against Twitter for suspending his account failed, in part because he could not claim the company breached a contract with the suspension and could not prove that his free speech rights were violated.  

Al-Ahmed sued Twitter in 2021 claiming employees targeted his account in an effort to gain information on critics of the Saudi government. He calls himself one of the leading critics of the Saudi government and was granted asylum in the United States in 1998 because he faced “imminent persecution” in his home country. He said his “prominent social media presence” led to the Saudi government to attempt to “silence his voice, even going so far as to attempt to kidnap and kill him on multiple occasions.” 

Al-Ahmed cited the case of Ahmad Abouammo, who was found guilty this past August of being recruited by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between 2013-2015 to access Twitter account information in an act of state-sponsored espionage. Abouammo was accused of using his inside access to gather nonpublic information critical of the Saudi regime from Twitter users and passing that information to Bader Al-Asaker, a close aide of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Ahmed claims he lost revenue from potential journalistic endeavors when Twitter suspended his account after alerting him by email that it was “one of a small group of accounts that may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors.” 

Judge Chen tossed Al-Ahmed’s original complaint with leave to amend after Twitter said Al-Ahmed hadn't suffered any harm from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's espionage and that he had been vague when he claimed other Twitter users who followed his account "have disappeared, been arrested or have been executed.

In its motion to dismiss Al-Ahmed’s amended claims, Twitter said his complaint came almost three years after a nearly identical action filed by another dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, regarding the same alleged state-sponsored espionage perpetrated by the Saudi government.

“It fails to cure any of the deficiencies that led the court to dismiss his previous complaint in its entirety,” Twitter said in the motion. The company also said Al-Ahmed’s four new claims were barred by the limitation of liability clause in Twitter’s terms of service.

“Al-Ahmed appears to conclusorily and mistakenly allege that defendants improperly accessed his computer ‘without authorization and/or exceed any authorized access.’ But this is not supported by any well-pleaded factual allegations,” Twitter added.

During a hearing on Twitter's motion in November, Al-Ahmed’s attorney Randy Kleinman told Chen — a Barack Obama appointee — that they had sufficient proof that Twitter gathered private exchanges between Ahmed and other users. 

“It seems for Twitter to hide behind its own bad faith conduct is inequitable,” Kleinman said. He argued Twitter has “gone to great lengths” to conceal its monitoring behavior, and that the former security chief at Twitter has come out to describe “extreme egregious deficiencies in its security protocol.” 

Anjali Srinivasan, representing Twitter, said the court’s prior ruling is a strong precedent and the plaintiff is trying to make the same case for “unlawful misconduct.”

“There needs to be a factual basis for that, and it’s simply not there,” she told Chen.

Chen eventually agreed, saying in his 23-page order to dismiss that “Al-Ahmed rehashes the same arguments in his opposition to Twitter’s motion to dismiss his FAC, and the court remains unconvinced.”

“Twitter’s acts do not constitute the type of continuing or recurring obligation or liability required for the continuous accrual theory to apply,” he wrote. “Rather, Twitter’s acts are the discrete incidents of (1) unauthorized intrusion of Al-Ahmed’s account between 2013 and 2015, and (2) the suspension of Al-Ahmed’s Twitter account in 2018. The unauthorized intrusion were discrete acts which did not recur after 2015. The suspension in 2018 is not part of a continuous act of unauthorized intrusion.”

Chen also said Al-Ahmed’s claim that Twitter’s suspension of his account suppresses the dissemination of free speech fails, because “removing non-objectionable or inappropriate online material does not equate to disincentivizing the restriction of such material.”

Finally, Chen said the plaintiff’s claim that Twitter could not seek immunity under a good faith requirement did not apply because under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act there is no good faith requirement which applies to Twitter. He said Al-Ahmed failed to identify “the specific provision of the contract allegedly breached by the defendant.”

Al-Ahmed has 30 days to file a second amended complaint, but only if he pleads under the delayed discovery rule that the statute of limitations does not apply because he didn't learn of Twitter's supposed actions until later.

Lawyers for the parties did not return requests for comment by press time.

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