A House committee investigating the January 6 US Capitol insurrection has requested that telecoms and social media companies preserve the personal communications of hundreds of people who may have been connected to the attack.
Two companies, Reddit and Facebook, issued short statements saying they will comply with the committee’s requests.
The committee, which only recently began its probe, did not ask the 35 companies to turn over the records — yet.
In letters sent on Monday, the panel asked them to save the records as part of the investigation into the January 6 insurrection, when a violent mob of former president Donald Trump’s supporters stormed the building and interrupted the certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
The request includes the records of Mr Trump along with members of his family and several Republican members of Congress, said a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, who could become speaker of the House if his party wins the majority in the 2022 elections, threatened the companies directly, tweeting that “a Republican majority will not forget” if they turn over information.
What the committee wants
The committee sent letters to the 35 companies on Monday as a part of its larger probe into the events of January 6, when Trump supporters attacked police, broke through windows and doors and sent members of Congress running for their lives.
The letters request that the companies “preserve metadata, subscriber information, technical usage information and content of communications for the listed individuals” from April 2020 to January 31, 2021.
The request includes the “content of communications, including all emails, voice messages, text or SMS/MMS messages, videos, photographs, direct messages, address books, contact lists and other files or other data communications".
The panel released the letters publicly but withheld the names of those on the list, though Bennie Thompson, the committee's Democratic chairman, said last week that it numbered in the “hundreds".
The companies that received the letters include social media companies Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, telecoms companies such as AT&T and Verizon, and conservative and far-right platforms Parler and 4chan.
The panel has also requested that 15 social media companies provide records about misinformation, foreign influence and domestic extremism on their platforms related to the 2020 election. But the requests to preserve personal communications raise unique questions about the relationship between the technology companies and Congress.
Why the committee wants the information
Democrats have said they will examine all aspects of the attack — including what Mr Trump was doing as it unfolded. Several Republican members of Congress spoke with the president that day and many of them have strongly supported his claims of widespread fraud in the election.
In the days immediately following the insurrection, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested that some Republicans might have been connected to the far-right supporters who stormed the building or may have been involved in the planning of the attack.
The committee told the telecoms and social media companies, however, that “the inclusion of any individual name on the list should not be viewed as indicative of any wrongdoing by that person or others".
Is this legal?
If the committee does eventually ask for the records, the decision on whether to comply, even partially, could be difficult for companies that want to co-operate but are also wary of turning over the private communications of members of Congress to their political rivals.
And because the request would be from Congress, and not law enforcement, the issue becomes more complicated.
Telecoms and technology companies field requests all the time from law enforcement and the courts to turn over private information, and they often comply. But even though the committee has the power to subpoena the information, the calculation on whether to co-operate with Congress is often as much of a political question as it is a legal one.
Democrats are in the majority, but Republicans could take over with a favourable election map in 2022. There are also regulatory and public relations factors. The issue is likely to be tied up in courts.
“It’s as much about the law as it is about the optics,” says G S Hans, a law professor at Vanderbilt University who specialises in First Amendment law and technology policy.
He says the companies are probably “talking about this from the general counsel’s office but also from their lobbying arms, because I think it’s both things at once".