The government is demanding to know who this Trump critic is. Twitter is suing to keep it a secret.
By Hayley Tsukayama
Apr 6 2017
Twitter filed a lawsuit Thursday to block an order from the Department of Homeland Security that seeks to reveal the user of an account who has been critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Tweets from the account — @ALT_uscis — indicate that it is run by someone who is an employee of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services division of Homeland Security.
Free speech advocates said the DHS order appeared to be the first time the government has attempted to use its powers to expose an anonymous critic — a development that, if successful, would have a “grave chilling effect on the speech of that account” as well as other accounts critical of the U.S. government, Twitter said.
DHS is “unlawfully abusing a limited-purpose investigatory tool” to find out who is behind the @ALT_uscis account, according to Twitter’s court filings.
DHS spokeswoman Jenny Burke declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The case sets up a potential showdown over free speech between Silicon Valley and Washington, which has tussled over whether tech firms can resist government orders seeking the identity or personal information from criminals and suspected terrorists.
Apple, for instance, declined in early 2016 to unlock the phone of the shooter in San Bernardino, Calif., and has refused to build “back doors” that would enable law enforcement to break into smartphones. The move sparked a pitched battle between the company and the FBI, which eventually paid a private expert to unlock the device.
But the Homeland Security case struck free speech advocates as more remarkable because the information request was about the identity of a government critic, rather than public safety.
“Twitter has a pretty strong argument,” said Andrew Crocker, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It does look and smell like the government is going after a critic. There’s nothing in the summons that CBP [Customs and Border Protection] sent to Twitter that authorizes this request under the power that they have.”
The @ALT_uscis account, which was created in January, has not held back in firing attacks against the Trump administration.
In a Jan. 26 tweet, the @ALT_uscis account tweeted: “Fact: More than 40% of illegal aliens in the US are Visa overstays from other developed countries not sounding like MEXICO #TheResistance.”
The account has also called attention to mismanagement in agency operations. In a March 12 tweet, it said that “USCIS turns down regularly private companies who propose collaboration to streamline the intake process, reducing costs and processing time.”
The account’s description 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. By 8:15 p.m., that figure had grown to more than 86,000.
In its court filing with the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California, Twitter said that DHS officials delivered an administrative summons to the social-networking site on March 14, via a CBP 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 maintains that 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.