Federal Court Authorizes Service of Process via Twitter
Federal courts have long authorized service via email under Rule 4(f) for foreign defendants. The rule says that an individual in a foreign country can be served by (1) internationally agreed upon means such as the Hague Convention; (2) if there are no international means, then “by means reasonably calculated to give notice,” or (3) by other means not prohibited by international agreement. Email service has long been available under this rule.
Here, plaintiff, St. Francis Assisi, sued Kuwait Finance House, Kuveyt-Turk Participation Bank and Hajjaj al-Ajmi for damages arising from their financing of ISIS attacks on Assyrian Christians in Iraq and Syria. St. Francis had not been successful in serving al-Ajmi through traditional means. He’s a Kuwaiti national, but Kuwait is not a party to the Hague convention. However, al-Ajmi has a large following on Twitter, and he has allegedly “used the social-media platform to fundraise large sums of money for terrorist organizations by providing bank-account numbers to make donations.”
Citing to Rule 4(f) and other cases that authorized service via electronic means, the court approves service via Twitter:
al-Ajmi has an active Twitter account and continues to use it to communicate with his audience. Service by Twitter is not prohibited by international agreement with Kuwait.
The court does not specify whether service is accomplished by sending al-Ajmi a “you’ve been served” @tweet directed to al-Ajmi’s Twitter alias, or via DM. (Presumably, the lawsuit documents are linked.)
Federal courts were not very warm to service via Facebook (see the links below), but perhaps their mood has changed. The other cases cited by the court all involve service via social platforms and email. There may be other cases out there, but this is one of the first cases under rule 4(f) I recall approving of service only via a social media platform. Hopefully, al-Ajmi will not have gone on a Twitter hiatus or have been suspended by Twitter by the time St. Francis effects service.
NB: Rule 4(f) only applies to foreign defendants. At least in federal court, service of domestic parties via electronic means isn’t possible under the federal rules.
[The ruling does not explain how St. Francis would have standing to sue in the Northern District of California on behalf of victims in Iraq and Syria but I suppose that is something the court will deal with down the road.]
1) For all of those clamoring for social media sites to censor terrorists more vigorously, the court’s approval of service of process via social media provides an important counter-narrative about the value of keeping communication lines open. We’ll fight terrorists on land, by air, by sea and, it appears, in the courts using our signature American-style lawfare (but only if we can tweet our lawsuits at them).
2) The court doesn’t address the obvious limitations of Twitter’s technology to send unrequested messages to a Twitter user. Twitter gives users the ability to turn off direct messages, and Twitter allows users to block or mute other users such that @tweets won’t show up. Because of Twitter’s unique technological configurations, it’s possible that the plaintiff cannot send a direct message to al-Ajmi and any @message will never reach al-Ajmi. Assuming the court nevertheless accepts the plaintiff’s service of process and allows the case to proceed, al-Ajmi may have good grounds to challenge any ensuing court verdict if he eventually chooses to fight in court. Otherwise, if the plaintiff gets a default judgment, we might cheer that as a triumph of American might (and the rule of law) sticking it to the terrorists, but we might actually lament the dubious service of process as a suspension of our celebrated commitment to due process.
Case citation: St. Francis Assisi v. Kuwait Fin. House, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136152 (N.D. Ca. Sept. 30, 2016).