Federal government drops inquiry into Twitter account critical of Trump

After the company filed a lawsuit Thursday, the federal government withdrew its summons of personal information related to a Twitter account that spoke out against the president's immigration policies. 

Kacper Pempel/Reuters/File
Twitter dropped a lawsuit against the government Friday after officials withdrew summons for information regarding an account that has been critical of President Trump.

The federal government has withdrawn its request for information regarding a Twitter account that has been critical of President Trump’s immigration policies after the social media company filed a suit claiming the order violated the rights of its users.  

In the claim brought Thursday, Twitter said the Department of Homeland Security filed an administrative summons to the company on March 14, demanding the social media site provide information about the account @ALT_uscis that would "unmask or likely lead to the unmasking" of the individuals or group behind it.

The account, which has more than 140,000 followers, is believed to be operated by an employee of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services division of Homeland Security, but its profile states that it does not share “the views of DHS or USCIS.” Since its creation in January, the account has criticized both Mr. Trump and his tough on immigration policies and enforcement methods.

The move reinvigorated a debate on free speech and privacy in the digital age that has sometimes pitted tech companies against law enforcement and government officials. Free speech advocates and tech companies argue that revealing personal correspondence and ridding accounts of anonymity counteracts the rights of their users, while officials say compliance from the companies in some cases is necessary to track down criminals or intervene in possible terrorist attacks.

“This is not just about our account,” ALT_uscis wrote in a Thursday tweet. “This is about all twitter users whether you agree with our view point or not. #WeAreAltGov #resist.”

On Friday, the government withdrew the request amid legal pressure, and Twitter dropped the suit.

Similar debates have led to several high profile clashes recently. Last year, the FBI sparred with Apple after the tech company refused to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooter, and other watchdogs have decried policing practices that use large swathes of social media information to track protesters.

In the case of Twitter and @ALT_uscis, the government was likely to face an uphill battle in court, as it had not shown any wrongdoing committed by the postings.

“The party seeking information must at the very least make some sort of showing that there is an actionable wrong committed by the posting,” Michael Risch, a professor of law at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who focuses on internet protocol (IP) and internet law, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.

“As with all social media, the possibility that a private identity will be unmasked will chill speech, but that’s always a background possibility,” he adds. “It is unclear that these particular requests will chill speech more than usual – I suspect that the posters already knew there was a chance they would be found out and accounted for that risk.”

DHS sought information including the names, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and IP addresses of those behind the account.

Twitter has fought fiercely to protect free speech on its platform, even receiving criticism for failing to shut down harassment and hate speech. After pivoting its policies to crackdown on abuse, some worried the company had begun to leave behind its tough stance.

But in the suit, Twitter doubled down on its previous positions, arguing that the government lacked proper justification to go after the account’s information. From the court filing:

“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,” the company wrote in the filing. “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.”

Thursday’s filing, and subsequent victory Friday, show that companies like Twitter stand a chance against the government as the two seek to navigate privacy in the digital age.

Other cases have not ended as well for privacy advocates.

On Tuesday, New York’s highest court ruled that Facebook must comply with warrants requesting profile information of 381 individuals involved in an alleged disability fraud case. The request came from Manhattan’s district attorney’s office, and included access to photos and conversations.

The court ruled that search warrants issued by judges cannot be appealed to a higher court, but did not touch the claim that the warrants would create an unconstitutional sweeping search. For that question to come into play, the court noted, those involved in the case would have to file a suit.  

While the ruling was seen as a loss by free speech advocates, others noted that the judges took a procedural rather than Constitutional approach to the decision, leaving the debate on privacy and free speech open for future interpretation.

“This ruling does not reject our important claim that the state and federal Constitution do not permit district attorneys to rummage around in people’s Facebook accounts like they did here,” Donna Leiberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told The New York Times.

This report contains material from Reuters.

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