Free Speech

by Mike Masnick


Filed Under:
cbp, dhs, free speech, privacy, uscis

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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.


Reader Comments

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  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 1:49pm

    *spin spin spin*

    We are making America great again by reminding everyone what the constitution says.

    We were 'testing' the courts to make sure they weren't to liberal in ingoring citizens rights.

    There is no way that POTUS had a screaming fit & sleepless nights because he was unable to stop all of this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sorrykb (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 2:01pm

    I foresee another great court victory for the Trump Administration here. It'll be terrific, tremendous, believe me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Avatar28 (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 2:08pm

    the most protected speech

    Political speech criticizing the government and it's policies? Of all the protected speech in this country, that is by far the most protected and, indeed, the EXACT reason for the creation of the First Amendment (well, part of it at least).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 2:26pm

    "What do you mean they actually read the law?!"

    Sounds like CBP/DHS was in such a rush that they just grabbed the first law they ran across and figured they could bluff Twitter into complying, assuming that Twitter wouldn't check to see if the law actually applied.

    Hopefully the judge slaps them down, hard, for their attempt to unmask people via lying about the law and what's going on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 2:37pm

    Power corrupts

    Obama had a history of relentlessly prosecuting leaks. It should surprise no one this administration is no different.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 2:58pm

      Re: Power corrupts

      I don't think anyone's surprised at this point(at least I certainly hope not), but there's a difference between surprise and disgust.

      One can fully expect something to happen, and still be disgusted that it happens.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      jupiterkansas (profile), 7 Apr 2017 @ 7:41am

      Re: Power corrupts

      Except these aren't leaks of classified info - which might be illegal. This is simply free speech being attacked.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 2:38pm

    _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. _

    Um, then the power of Christ compels you? Or something?

    (Yo Eddie, where is that bigger First Amendment backdoor? _Yeah_, the one that replaces the entire wall; which one did you think i was talking about?)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    JEDIDIAH, 6 Apr 2017 @ 3:32pm

    All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

    I can't quite help thinking that people would have different opinions if they party identities are flipped.

    This isn't exactly a private individual criticizing the government. So the usual naieve notion of "but free speech" isn't quite appropriate here. These are people claiming to speak for government organizations. The idea that any liberal would want rogue members of government agencies to be given free reign seems a little puzzling really.

    ANY organization should be able to ferret out rogues that speak for it. They own their own identity and they shouldn't have to worry about it being hijacked by an insubordinate employee or even and outside saboteur.

    This is also quite unlike someone with a <company>sucks domain. That is also a situation where it is quite clear it's 3rd party criticism and there's no trademark dilution or identity theft.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 3:40pm

      Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

      Is there even any evidence that the accounts are run by current government employees? Satire is free speech, and it's obvious that's what they are.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      sorrykb (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 3:46pm

      Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

      These are people claiming to speak for government organizations.

      Did you even bother to look at the twitter account, which explicitly states "Not the views of DHS or USCIS"?

      ANY organization should be able to ferret out rogues that speak for it.

      You don't get to use the power of the courts to do it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ed (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 5:24pm

      Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

      Why do people like you always assume everyone else would be just as ignorant and despicable if "party identities are flipped"? I don't know of many Democrats who've been complete childish bullies like the GOP members of our current government. If you're unfamiliar with the 1st Amendment of our Constitution, you should Google it. God knows, nobody in the GOP has ever done that, yet, including the one currently occupying the White House.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 5:29pm

        Re: Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

        "I don't know of many Democrats who've been complete childish bullies like the GOP members of our current government."

        Where have you been the last eight years?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 9:12pm

          Re: Re: Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

          What my team does is good!
          What your team does is evil!

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 6 Apr 2017 @ 5:40pm

      Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

      I can't quite help thinking that people would have different opinions if they party identities are flipped.

      Do you think that's true of us at Techdirt? If so you'd be wrong. We'd criticize this kind of thing no matter who was doing it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 6:15pm

        Re: Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

        I've found Techdirt to be pretty equal opportunity when it comes to calling out BS from anyone.

        That's why I am here every day to read the latest!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Apr 2017 @ 10:29am

      Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

      Every single thing you said was wrong. Congratulations???

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Apr 2017 @ 2:57pm

      Re: All bad is good as long as it's our people doing it.

      "This isn't exactly a private individual criticizing the government."

      Umm, that's literally exactly what it is.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Apr 2017 @ 3:42pm

    "I am the one who unmasks!"

    - Donald Trump, probably

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    PaulT (profile), 7 Apr 2017 @ 12:25am

    "it was revealed that Donald Trump himself got "directly involved" in the hunt for the National Park Service's rogue tweeter"

    Well, the man does seem to think that Twitter and his hideaway in Florida are more important than security briefings and answering actual questions in press conferences, so no surprise there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 7 Apr 2017 @ 5:09am

    twitter bull shit pr stunt. same twitter sells info to gov in backroom.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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