Twitter Won't Unmask Rogue 'Alt-Gov' Accounts To Help Trump, Is That Even Legal?
The Resistance will be live-tweeted...
Update / New development: the good guys won! See end of post! After the Trump administration took office and started telling a whole bunch of agencies to cease all unauthorized communication, a whole bunch of "alt-gov" Twitter accounts started popping up, run by people who said they were government workers posting from home, on their own time; some of the most prominent were the “AltUSNatParkService,” which started out Tweeting environmental messages and quickly shifted to more general anti-Trump messaging, and the "Alt Immigration" account at @AlT_uscis, run by folks who said they were disgruntled US Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) employees. The latter account apparently got under the skin of the Powers That Be: The Department of Homeland Security, which includes USCIS and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) sent Twitter a summons demanding the company release all records related to the owners of the @ALT_uscis account, including "User names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses." Twitter is having none of it, and is suing the government to block the order, because First Amendment.
Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio declined to comment on whether the government had demanded information about other accounts critical of Trump.
Twitter, which counts Trump among its active users, has a record of litigating in favor of user privacy.
"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," Twitter said in the lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Crom bless them, is representing the Twitter user who owns the account and who would rather not be unmasked, thank you very much. An ACLU attorney, Esha Bhandari, told Reuters the government request for the identity of an individual social media user is "highly unusual," since such requests for private user information are usually limited to matters of national security, or investigations into actual crimes. Just saying bad things about the government is not an especially compelling reason to try to force a company to reveal private user information:
"We have seen no reason the government has given for seeking to unmask this speaker's identity," Bhandari said, adding that the right to anonymous speech against the government is "a bedrock American value" strongly protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The @ALT_uscis account was pretty succinct in its comment on the kerfuffle: It simply Tweeted out the text of the First Amendment:
The account owner also speculated the attempt to uncover their identity might have been prompted by a February Tweet calling attention to a charming little Hemingway quote about war posted to Twitter, then later removed, by the San Diego chapter of the Border Patrol union:
Who knows?! That doesn't especially reflect so well on the CBP union, which endorsed Donald Trump and is often a source of fearmongering about immigrants, although whether they actually could sway DHS to go after a Twitter account is open to question.
Even weirder, the DHS summons seeking to unmask the @ALT_uscis account owner offers a downright bizarre rationale for the request:
A copy of the summons filed with the lawsuit says the records are needed for an investigation to ensure compliance with duties, taxes and fines and other customs and immigration matters.
It was not immediately clear how the anonymous account fit into those laws and regulations, and Twitter said the summons was an abuse of a law meant to be used to investigate imported merchandise.
No, not cracking down on possible rogue employees -- just making sure they're being charged the right fees for, um, exporting their ideas, yeah, that's it.
Also strange: It doesn't appear the attempt to unmask the account owner is coming from the top -- instead, it's just some DHS schmuck in Florida:
There is no indication that the White House was aware of the summons, which was signed by a Florida-based supervisor who works in an office that investigates employee corruption, misconduct and mismanagement. The supervisor could not be reached for comment.
The summons requested, but apparently did not order, that Twitter keep the document private.
Curiouser and curiouser, eh? Is the Florida schmuck the point guy for an official DHS effort to weed out troublemakers, or a rogue DHS employee trying to go after someone they think is a discredit to the service? We'll assume that since they went to the trouble of literally making a federal case of it, this is official. But it would be irresponsible not to speculate wildly. Either way, this should really teach the @Alt_uscis folks an important lesson about the dangers of acting outside of official channels.
So far, the Justice Department and Homeland Security haven't commented on the unmasking effort, although we won't be surprised if some anonymous staffers end up talking to the media about what's going on, because the Trump administration is leakier than a pink knit cap with pussycat ears. Good on Twitter for protecting their users' privacy, and good on the ACLU for doing what the ACLU does. And let's hear it for disgruntled civil servants who insist on thinking for themselves -- may they continue to gum up the administration's plans to turn government into a Trumpcentric enterprise.
Update: The government has withdrawn its request for the account information, and Twitter has therefore dropped its lawsuit. No chilling effect at all, at least not this time, nope!
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