Twitter challenges US order for anti-Trump user records

Posted April 07, 2017

Department of Homeland Security and other federal officials who it alleges in a suit today are trying to "unmask" a user who has been critical of the Trump administration. Twitter said that it informed the account holder on April 4, and told CBP that its request infringes on the First Amendment rights of the company and its users.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which is a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment on pending litigation.

"Like other accounts of this sort, @ALT_USCIS claims to be run by one or more current government employees-in this case, employees of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services", Twitter says, in its suit. It requests that Twitter produce information that pertains to the identity of the person (s) who established and use the @ALT_USCIS account.

When CBP made its initial request, the office used an obscure legal statute dealing with taxes on the "importation of merchandise", according to The Verge; Recode reported that this type of USA legal code usually pertains to counterfeit items coming into the US, not internet data. Other such "alternative" - or "alt" - accounts include @Alt_CDC for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and @AltUSEPA for the Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

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However, Twitter and its executives have also been highly critical of the Trump administration, and particularly its ill-fated travel ban that targeted visitors and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.

"First Amendment interests are at their zenith when, as here, the speech at issue touches on matters of public political life", the filing said. But Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it, too, would be going to court "to defend this user's right to anonymous speech".

Twitter, which counts Trump among its active users, has a record of litigating in favour of user privacy.

"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.