In an amended civil lawsuit filed in the United States, the erstwhile social media giant Twitter, which now goes by the appellation X, stands accused of abetting grave human rights transgressions committed by Saudi Arabia against its user base. These damning allegations posit that X disclosed confidential user data at the behest of Saudi authorities at an alarmingly disproportionate rate when juxtaposed with its interactions with the United States, the United Kingdom, or Canada.
This litigation, originally initiated in May, is a legal endeavor led by Areej al-Sadhan, the sibling of a Saudi humanitarian worker subjected to enforced disappearance, subsequently enduring a draconian 20-year prison sentence.
At the heart of this legal imbroglio lies the machinations surrounding the incursion of three Saudi agents into the echelons of the California-based tech firm, masquerading as Twitter employees during the years 2014 and 2015. These surreptitious infiltrations ultimately culminated in the apprehension of Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, Areej’s brother, and the exposure of the identities of myriad anonymous Twitter users, a portion of whom purportedly underwent detention and torture as part of the Saudi government’s draconian measures to quash dissent.
Legal representatives for Al-Sadhan have augmented their claims recently, unveiling fresh allegations spotlighting how Twitter, under the stewardship of then-CEO Jack Dorsey, willfully disregarded, or was cognizant of, the Saudi government’s concerted campaign to unmask critics. Paradoxically, owing to fiscal considerations and endeavors to foster amicable ties with the Saudi government, a principal investor in the corporation, Twitter purportedly furnished succor to the Kingdom.
The revamped lawsuit meticulously delineates how X initially garnered prominence as a pivotal conduit for democratic movements during the Arab Spring, thereby arousing disquiet within the Saudi government as early as 2013.
The legal salvo arrives on the heels of Human Rights Watch’s condemnation of a Saudi court for imposing the death penalty solely based on an individual’s Twitter and YouTube activities. This punitive measure is perceived as a distressing escalation in the government’s relentless suppression of freedom of expression.
The convicted individual, Muhammad al-Ghamdi, aged 54, is the sibling of a Saudi scholar and government critic domiciled in the United Kingdom. Court records reviewed by HRW indicate that al-Ghamdi faced accusations related to two accounts, collectively possessing a paltry 10 followers. These accounts boasted fewer than 1,000 tweets combined, primarily consisting of retweets of well-known government critics.
The genesis of the Saudi crackdown can be traced to December 2014 when Ahmad Abouammo, subsequently convicted in the U.S. for covertly acting as a Saudi agent and deceiving the FBI, commenced the unauthorized access and transmission of confidential user data to Saudi Arabian officials. The lawsuit contends that Abouammo conveyed a message via Twitter’s messaging system to Saud al-Qahtani, a close confidant of Mohammed bin Salman, pledging to “proactively and reactively delete evil.” This cryptic missive, according to the lawsuit, alluded to the identification and persecution of perceived Saudi dissidents utilizing the platform. Significantly, Al-Qahtani later faced U.S. allegations of masterminding the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The lawsuit asserts that Twitter was either cognizant of this message, flagrantly dispatched on its own platform, or adopted a deliberate stance of willful ignorance. It is notable that Twitter, now operating under the aegis of X, refrains from responding to media inquiries.
Efforts to obtain responses from legal representatives involved in the case, including Ben Berkowitz of Keker, Van Nest & Peters, representing the company, and Jack Dorsey’s new endeavor, Block, Inc., yielded no responses.
The lawsuit further alleges that subsequent to Abouammo’s resignation in May 2015, he continued liaising with Twitter to fulfill requests emanating from Bader al-Asaker, a senior aide to Mohammed bin Salman, seeking to unveil the identities of confidential users. Abouammo purportedly conveyed that these requests were made on behalf of his “old partners in the Saudi government.”
Furthermore, the lawsuit posits that Twitter possessed ample forewarning concerning security risks to internal personal data, including the threat of insider breaches. Twitter’s alleged decision to overlook these ominous signs is portrayed as indicative of its awareness of the Saudi government’s deleterious agenda.
The legal document sheds light on an incident in September 2015 when a Saudi user registered a complaint with Twitter, asserting that their accounts had been compromised. Curiously, despite this grievance, the lawsuit alleges that Twitter failed to preclude one of the implicated Saudis, Ali Hamad Alzabarah, from accessing confidential user data, despite his prior interactions with the compromised account.
Saudi Arabian authorities purportedly pursued Twitter diligently once they obtained confidential user data from their operatives within the company. Emergency disclosure requests (EDRs) were filed to obtain documentation confirming a user’s identity, often leading to expeditious approvals on the same day.
Between July and December 2015, Twitter, now X, is alleged to have acceded to the Kingdom’s information requests at a rate disproportionately higher than other nations, including Canada, the UK, Australia, and Spain.
A particularly conspicuous episode transpired on November 5, 2015, when Twitter opted to elevate Alzabarah, who had since become a fugitive residing in Saudi Arabia, just days before the company faced scrutiny from the FBI concerning Saudi infiltration. Alzabarah conveyed his “unimaginable happiness” for this promotion, leading to suspicions that al-Asaker had played a pivotal role in facilitating the advancement.
Even after being apprised of the FBI’s concerns, Twitter allegedly placed Alzabarah on leave but retained his phone, which he purportedly employed extensively to maintain contact with Saudi state associates. The lawsuit argues that Twitter could reasonably have expected Alzabarah’s prompt flight to Saudi Arabia, which indeed materialized.
Twitter later notified users who may have been exposed, yet the lawsuit asserts that it withheld crucial information regarding the extent or certainty of the breach, potentially endangering numerous users who could have sought refuge beyond Saudi borders had they been duly informed.
Ultimately, this lawsuit posits that Twitter’s actions, or inactions, placed multitudes of Twitter users in jeopardy, as it allegedly failed to furnish vital information that could have enabled them to escape the Kingdom’s dragnet. Even subsequent to awareness of the breach, Twitter continued to engage with Saudi Arabia as a strategic regional partner. Discussions between Jack Dorsey and Mohammed bin Salman ensued approximately six months after the FBI’s notification, centering on the “training and qualification of Saudi cadres.”
While Areej Al-Sadhan’s legal team fervently pursues justice, the paramount aspiration remains the release of her brother, Abdulrahman, enabling his reunion with his family in the United States. The saga encapsulates an earnest quest for justice and the ardent desire for reunification, all set against the backdrop of the Saudi government’s continued assault on freedom of expression.