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Saudi dissident sues Twitter over spying campaign and account suspension

Twitter is 'turning a blind eye' to wrongdoings, claims suit filed on behalf of US-based dissident Ali al-Ahmed
Between August 2013 and December 2015, two Saudi spies allegedly infiltrated Twitter and accessed Ahmed's information, lawsuit claims (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

A prominent Saudi dissident filed a lawsuit against Twitter, accusing the social media giant of failing to protect his account from being hacked and refusing to reinstate an account suspended since 2018.

In a legal action filed earlier this week on behalf of Ali al-Ahmed, Twitter was accused of "turning a blind eye" to wrongdoings within the company and violating its contractual obligations when Ahmed created a social media account.

The suit alleges that from August 2013 to December 2015, two Saudi spies infiltrated the company and "accessed the company's information on an array of Saudi dissidents including Mr Al-Ahmed".

Last year, Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah were charged by the US Justice Department with being Saudi spies, accused of accessing the data of more than 6,000 Twitter users and sharing the information with Saudi officials.

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The latest suit accuses Twitter of failing to protect Ahmed's account from being hacked and claims the company's refusal to reinstate one of his suspended accounts was because of Saudi funding.

In the past decade, Twitter has received substantial financial investment from Saudi Arabia, beginning in 2011 when Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal purchased $300m worth of Twitter stock. 

Middle East Eye previously reported that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman six months after Alzabarah was charged as a Saudi spy, raising questions about whether Dorsey was aware of the espionage campaign.

"The KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] was successful in using Twitter's internal resources to identify Mr Al-Ahmed as a critic of the government and ultimately silence him," the lawsuit said.

"Twitter continues to bar Mr Al-Ahmed from access or use," the suit claims, "presumably because Twitter is in league with the KSA; preferring access to the KSA over human rights, freedom and abiding by the terms of its owner agreements."

'Irreparable damage'

The lawsuit also claims that the breach by alleged Saudi spies caused irreparable damage to some of Ahmed's followers on the platform, and even the deaths of others.

Several Twitter users who had interacted with Ahmed "have disappeared, been arrested, or have been executed", the suit alleges.

"One such example is Abdullah al-Hamid, a Saudi dissident and follower of Mr Al-Ahmed’s Twitter account, who was jailed and ultimately died in custody," the lawsuit said.

The damages that Ahmed is seeking amount to more than $75,000, allowing for the Southern District of New York to have original jurisdiction in the case.

"By silencing Ali Al-Ahmed and countless others, Twitter is blatantly part and parcel with silencing democracy and human rights advocacy in Saudi Arabia," David Schwartz, counsel for Al-Ahmed, told legal news website Law360.

Twitter is "essentially in the business of choosing what positions will be promoted and other positions that will be silenced", Schwartz said, adding that its actions were "unconscionable".

Two years ago, hackers attempted to intercept and spy on Ahmed's communications.

One incident involved hackers posing as a BBC employee, while another concerned an impersonation of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in an attempt to deliver a malicious link.

Ahmed has frequently appeared on TV and news programmes criticising Saudi Arabia's government.