Twitter is suing the Department of Homeland Security after the agency demanded to know the identity of the person behind the “@ALT_uscis” or “Alt Immigration” Twitter account, one of several “rogue” accounts ostensibly created by anonymous employees of the federal government.
The lawsuit from Twitter alleges that DHS demanded to know the name, login information, phone number, mailing address and IP address of the user behind the account and threatened that failure to comply could lead to court actions.
Twitter also says DHS “requested” that the company not reveal the existence of the summons. Twitter did not comply with either the summons or the request for silence — instead, the company is asking a federal court to declare the summons “unlawful and unenforceable.”
The Twitter account in question is @ALT_uscis, as in “alternative U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” It’s one of a wave of accounts started in late January and early February after the Trump administration set limits on social media postings from a number of agencies.
You may remember that a Twitter account for Badlands National Park went rogue, tweeting about climate change. After that act of resistance was shut down, a number of “alternative” accounts — for national parks and all kinds of other government agencies — sprang up.
Some accounts say they are run by fans/supporters. Others claim to be run by actual government employees, which is difficult to verify. As for @ALT_uscis, The Associated Press reports that the people behind the account told the wire service they were “employees and former employees of the agency.”
Identifying which employees was apparently the goal of the DHS summons, demanding Twitter produce “all records” associated with the account or face legal consequences.
Lawyers for the social media giant say that the summons was itself illegal — a violation of the First Amendment rights of @ALT_uscis as well as of Twitter itself — and unenforceable.
They note that @ALT_uscis was expressing dissent, criticizing immigration policies and disagreeing with other Trump administration policies. (The account’s older tweets have since been deleted; some screenshots are shared in the court filing and more recent tweets follow the same trend.)
Identifying the user “would chill the expression of particularly valuable political speech,” Twitter says.
The company says on its site it releases private user data only in case of emergency or through the proper legal processes, like a court order. In the lawsuit, it says that to demand a user be unmasked, the government must demonstrate a law was violated, prove that identifying the user is the “least restrictive” way of investigating the offense, and make the case that it isn’t trying to suppress free speech or violate the First Amendment. (Twitter has a process for law enforcement officers seeking private information, which requires a court order, subpoena or proof of emergency.)
“Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings,” the company’s lawyers write.
Furthermore, they say the tool DHS used to demand the information — a Customs and Border Patrol administrative summons — is only meant to allow CBP to demand information about imported merchandise. “It is apparent that whatever investigation Defendants are conducting here does not pertain to imported merchandise,” the complaint says.
As a side note, they point out that the summons was delivered on March 14, with a deadline of March 13 — that is, already in the past.
The larger question is one of First Amendment rights, the company maintains.
“Compelled disclosure of the identities of Twitter users who have engaged in pseudonymous speech would chill their exercise of the constitutionally protected right to speak anonymously,” Twitter’s lawyers write.
“A time-honored tradition of pseudonymous free speech on matters of public moment runs deep in the political life of America,” they note elsewhere
NPR’s Laura Sydell reports that this isn’t the first time Twitter has gone to court over users’ privacy.
“Twitter has resisted other government attempts for information about its users including a demand from New York prosecutors for information about an Occupy Wall Street protester in 2012,” Laura says. “Twitter lost that case.”
Twitter and DHS both declined to comment about the new litigation.
The user behind @ALT_uscis has responded, however, with several tweets.
“Last week: Unmasking is outrageous when it comes to Russian collusion,” he or she wrote, in a reference to Republican outrage over intelligence operations.
“Today: Unmask @alt_uscis because customs import code.”
“If they win here,” the anonymous user asked, “where will they stop?”