Trump Sued by Twitter Over Bid to Unmask @Alt-Agency Handle

  • U.S. demands to know identity of immigration policy critic
  • Twitter says request violates users’ free speech rights

President Donald Trump wants to know who’s behind the rogue federal employee Twitter accounts slamming his administration’s policies. Twitter Inc.’s suing to keep him from finding out.

Twitter alleges that the Trump administration’s subpoena for information to identify the users behind accounts critical of the president would violate their Constitutional rights to free-speech. The social media giant contends users are entitled to their anonymity unless they’ve violated a law that would warrant unmasking and the government has failed to make such a case.

The Trump administration’s sensitivity to criticism on the so-called ALT Twitter feeds that mimic those of federal agencies began with the president’s Jan. 20 inauguration. When the official Twitter account of the National Park Service re-tweeted an image comparing that day’s crowd size to the larger one at President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Trump personally called the acting park service director to complain, according to a Washington Post report cited in the complaint.

An official park service apology on Twitter for the unflattering comparison spawned the activation of the “rogue” alternative accounts.

Trump, who frequently uses Twitter to lambaste public officials and private citizens alike, embraced the site as a tool for political warfare during his campaign. As president, Trump continues to deploy tweets, sometimes in the early morning hours, to attack political foes, judges and media outlets.

Twitter said in its lawsuit Thursday that handles such as @ALT_USCIS, @alt_labor and @BadlandsNPS are among a “new and innovative class” of users who provide views that are “often vigorously opposed” to the actions of the administration. The government issued an administrative summons to Twitter on March 14 demanding that the company turn over records to identify the user or users behind @ALT_USCIS, according to the complaint.

Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, declined to comment on the lawsuit against that agency and U.S Customs and Border Protection. Some Trump supporters have complained that a so-called deep state of Obama holdovers is embedded throughout the federal bureaucracy and is trying to undercut the president.

Travel Ban

Some of the alternative accounts are the work of people claiming to be current or former federal employees seeking to challenge the views of the government. @ALT_USCIS has been critical of the new administration’s immigration policies, including the president’s travel bans and executive order to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

Two days before Twitter received the summons, @ALT_USCIS tweeted about the department’s “waste, inefficiency and poor management” as it attempted to create an automated system to process immigration applications, according to the complaint. A U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent faxed a summons to Twitter demanding disclosure of the account holder under a U.S. customs statute for the examination of books and witnesses.

Twitter is required to produce all records related to the account to comply with an ongoing investigation to “ascertain the correctness of entries,” according to a copy of the summons included in the lawsuit. In the summons, the government threatened legal action if Twitter didn’t comply by March 13, which was the day before the company got the subpoena.

Suing Obama

Twitter has historically been willing to go to court to protect user data -- a position that has sometimes led to its service being temporarily blocked in other countries. The company releases a global transparency report for its users, where it details how many data requests came from each government and whether they were fulfilled. It sued the Obama administration after being blocked from disclosing exactly how many times the U.S. government made surveillance requests.

The company has disclosed the identities of criminal suspects. In March, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested a man accused of sending a link on Twitter that included a flashing light intended to trigger an epileptic seizure, which it did, according the New York Times. In that case according to the Times, Twitter disclosed information that led to the arrest of man in Salisbury, Maryland.

In Thursday’s lawsuit, Twitter contends the government failed to demonstrate that the rogue users have committed a crime that would prompt the release of their personal information. The statute cited by government to demand the data, Twitter claims, covers only a narrow class of records related to importing merchandise. @ALT_USCIS doesn’t import merchandise into the U.S., according to the complaint.

‘Chilling Effect’

“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 alternative agency accounts that have been created to voice their dissent to government policies," according to the filing.

Attorneys for Twitter claim the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized that “anonymity is often essential to fostering" political speech, especially when the speaker could “face retaliation or retribution” for his or her comments.

The case is Twitter Inc. v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 17-01916, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco)

— With assistance by Sarah Frier

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