By Hayley Tsukayama
Twitter filed a lawsuit Thursday against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, asking the court to prevent the department from taking steps to unmask the user behind an account critical of the Trump administration.
The tech company said that allowing DHS access to that information would produce a “grave chilling effect on the speech of that account,” as well as other accounts critical of the U.S. government. The case sets up a potential showdown over free speech between Silicon Valley and Washington.
According to Twitter’s court filings, Homeland Security is “unlawfully abusing a limited-purpose investigatory tool” to find out who is behind the @ALT_USCIS account. Its Twitter feed has publicly criticized the administration’s immigration policies, particularly the actions of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) division of Homeland Security.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Jenny Burke declined to comment on pending litigation.
Tweets from the @ALT_USCIS account, which is still active, indicate that it is run by someone who claims to be a government employee working at the USCIS. According to the department’s policy on personal social media use, employees cannot post anything that could “cause damage to the department’s reputation or bring it into disrepute.” The account’s description, however, stresses that its views are “Not the views of DHS or USCIS.” As of the time of the court filing, the account had been active for two months and amassed more than 32,000 followers.
A recent message cites the text of the First Amendment.
— ALT???? Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017
In the filing, Twitter said that DHS officials delivered an administrative summons to the social networking site on March 14, via a Customs and Border Protection agent, demanding that the company provide records that would “unmask or likely lead to the unmasking” of the person or people behind the account.
Twitter opposes the order on two main points. First, it maintains that the CBP does not have jurisdiction to demand such information, which includes “names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses,” associated with the account.
But its primary objection, the company said, is that allowing the government to unmask Twitter critics is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to free speech. Twitter has long defended its users’ rights to free expression — a position it has held for years, notably during the widespread “Arab Spring” protests in 2011. That right, the company said, is particularly important when discussing political speech.
“First Amendment interests are at their zenith when, as here, the speech at issue touches on matters of public political life,” the filing said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing the user in this case, also said that it’s concerned the order is an attempt to infringe on free speech. “To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification. But in this case the government has given no reason at all, leading to concerns that it is simply trying to stifle dissent,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler in a statement.
We're glad Twitter is pushing back. We'll be going to court to defend this user's right to anonymous speech. https://t.co/tqj5XrNvgn
— ACLU National (@ACLU) April 6, 2017
The @Alt_USCIS account is one of many “alternative government” accounts that have been popping up since President Trump’s election. Accounts apparently run by employees (or former employees) of the National Park Service, National Weather Service, Labor Department and other agencies have all appeared to question the Trump administration’s policies and fact-check its assertions on a variety of topics.
Twitter said it also feared that the government wants to punish the person or people responsible for the account. The summons, the company said, “may reflect the very sort of official retaliation that can result from speech that criticizes government officials and agencies.”
The company filed the suit in the Northern California District of the U.S. District Court.
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