Twitter Sues Homeland Security Over Attempt To Unmask 'Alt' Immigration Twitter Account
from the the-times-we-live-in dept
As you probably know by now, there are a whole bunch of “alt” or “rogue” government Twitter accounts, initially inspired by what appeared to be tweets from a former National Parks Service employee containing “rogue” information against the Trump administration. Many of those rogue accounts are questionable in nature and likely fake, rather than being actually run by employees of the parts of the government they claim to represent. Still, it appears that many in the government are concerned. Just yesterday, via a FOIA request, it was revealed that Donald Trump himself got “directly involved” in the hunt for the National Park Service’s rogue tweeter:
If you can’t read that, it’s an excerpt from an email saying that “this has become a very sensitive issue, especially since the President has gotten directly involved and contacted Acting Director Mike Reynolds concerned about one of the images…”
It appears that other parts of the government are also deeply concerned with unmasking who’s involved in these things. Today, Twitter sued the US government because the Department of Homeland Security and its Customs & Border Protection division have apparently been trying to unmask the operator of the @ALT_uscis account, which claims to be run by people working for US Citizenship and Immigration Service presenting the “rogue” view on immigration issues.
From the lawsuit:
This is an action to prevent the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (?DHS?), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (?CBP?), and the individual Defendants from unlawfully abusing a limited-purpose investigatory tool to try to unmask the real identity of one or more persons who have been using Twitter?s social media platform, and specifically a Twitter account named @ALT_USCIS, to express public criticism of the Department and the current Administration. The rights of free speech afforded Twitter?s users and Twitter itself under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech. In these circumstances, Defendants may not compel Twitter to disclose information regarding the real identities of these users without first demonstrating that some criminal or civil offense has been committed, that unmasking the users? identity is the least restrictive means for investigating that offense, that the demand for this information is not motivated by a desire to suppress free speech, and that the interests of pursuing that investigation outweigh the important First Amendment rights of Twitter and its users. But Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings. And even if Defendants could otherwise demonstrate an appropriate basis for impairing the First Amendment interests of Twitter and its users, they certainly may not do so using the particular investigatory tool employed here?which Congress authorized solely to ensure compliance with federal laws concerning imported merchandise?because it is apparent that whatever investigation Defendants are conducting here does not pertain to imported merchandise.
Specifically, Twitter argues that DHS is abusing particular laws that CBP/DHS has access to, but for a specific purpse — and it’s not to identify rogue employees:
First, the sole statutory authority CBP invoked in issuing the summons?19 U.S.C. § 1509?authorizes the agency to compel production of only a narrow class of records relating to the importation of merchandise. But CBP?s investigation of the @ALT_USCIS account plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the importation of merchandise into the United States. Section 1509 thus provides CBP no power to compel Twitter to reveal information pertaining to the identity of the individual(s) behind the @ALT_USCIS account.
Further down in the complaint, Twitter notes that it appears that DHS/CBP directly misrepresented what was happening here:
The CBP Summons states generically that ?production of the indicated records is required in connection with an investigation or inquiry to ascertain the correctness of entries, to determine the liability for duties, taxes, fines, penalties, or forfeitures, and/or to ensure compliance with the laws or regulations administered by CBP and ICE.? Beyond that boilerplate language, the CBP Summons provides no justification for issuance of a summons targeting the @ALT_USCIS account.
Amusingly, the lawsuit also notes that CBP demanded Twitter hand over this info the day before the summons was sent.
And then it points to the clear free speech chilling effects this kind of unmasking could cause:
Second, permitting CBP to pierce the pseudonym of the @ALT_USCIS account would have a grave chilling effect on the speech of that account in particular and on the many other ?alternative agency? accounts that have been created to voice dissent to government policies. The Supreme Court has long recognized the extraordinary value of the kind of speech emanating from these accounts?pure political speech criticizing government policies and highlighting government waste and mismanagement. And the Court has likewise recognized that anonymity is often essential to fostering such political speech where, as here, the speaker could face retaliation or retribution if his or her real identity were linked to the speech. In this context, the CBP Summons must be declared unlawful and enjoined absent an evidentiary showing by Defendants that some criminal or civil offense has been committed, that unmasking the users? identity is the least restrictive means for investigating that offense, that the demand for this information is not motivated by a desire to suppress free speech, and that the interests of pursuing that investigation outweigh the important free speech rights of Twitter and its users. Defendants have not even attempted to meet that burden.
As for the actual account, since the lawsuit was announced it retweeted the ACLU saying that it will go to court to defend the anonymous person or people behind the account, and then it pinned the following tweet:
I have no idea if the people behind the account really work for US CIS, but there’s no way that the government should be able to abuse other laws or chill free speech to try to track down people saying things they don’t like.