On 6 April 2017, the social media platform Twitter filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Homeland Security in an effort to guard the identity behind the handle @ALT_USCIS — an account that has been heavily critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
On 10 April 2017, the @ALT_USCIS account told us via e-mail that they are encouraged by the events:
We are relieved that Twitter took a stance for the anonymity of its users and free speech when presented with a request to provide information about an anonymous user without showing probable cause or a crime was committed. We feel optimistic since we saw the overwhelming support from the Twitter community pushing against the gov request.
We are definitely narrowing down the issues we will cover in our tweets since our following increased by 150 thousand. We feel an obligation to stay on message, inform about the current state of immigration and also dispute any information we think is not accurate.
DHS had issued an administrative summons in March 20167, requesting that Twitter hand over documents that would “unmask, or likely lead to unmasking, the identity of the person(s) responsible for the @ALT_USCIS account,” according to the court documents filed in federal court in San Francisco:
The rights of free speech afforded Twitter’s users and Twitter itself under the First Amendment include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous political speech. In these circumstances, Defendants may not compel Twitter to disclose information regarding the real identity 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. But Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings.
The account (USCIS stands for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency that falls under the purview of DHS) sprang up in January 2017 after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, as did many other so-called alt-government or rogue accounts.
The account remains active and, true to form, has been criticizing the fact that the government has chosen to target whoever is behind it:
FYI, some refugees became refugees out of fear of being unmasked by dictators because of dissent/opposing views . Lets not have that here.
— ALT? Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017
Last week : Unmasking is outrageous when it comes to Russian collusion.
Today: Unmask @alt_uscis because customs import code.
— ALT? Immigration (@ALT_uscis) April 6, 2017
According to Twitter’s court filing, DHS does not have the jurisdiction to demand Twitter release information that could identify the account user.
The filing stated:
First, the sole statutory authority CBP invoked in issuing the summons—19
U.S.C. § 1509—authorizes the agency to compel production of only a narrow class of records
relating to the importation of merchandise. But CBP’s investigation of the @ALT_USCIS
account plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the importation of merchandise into the
United States. …
The CBP Summons plainly does not request records relating to the importation of merchandise. It requests that Twitter produce information that pertains to the identity of the person(s) who established and use the @ALT_USCIS account. And it is utterly implausible that Defendants’ interest in the person(s) who established and use the @ALT_USCIS account stems from their importation of merchandise into the United States.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Esha Bhandari, who is representing the Twitter user, told Reuters the government’s request was highly unusual, saying, “We have seen no reason the government has given for seeking to unmask this speaker’s identity.” After the lawsuit was made public, the @Alt_USCIS account tweeted it had gained 33,000 new followers in under an hour.
Twitter’s court filing noted that the “alt-government” accounts started shortly after President Trump’s 20 January 2017 inauguration, when the National Park Service posted a tweet comparing the crowd sizes of Trump’s inauguration and that of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. After the tweet circulated, the Park Service “abruptly” shut down its account and sent an internal e-mail to employees saying that all bureaus and the department “have been directed by [the] incoming administration to
shut down Twitter platforms immediately until further notice.”
A few days later, the Badlands National Park Twitter page began posting tweets about climate change, resulting in media reports that park rangers were “going rogue” in an administration that cracks down on free speech and denies climate science. This prompted more Twitter accounts to pop up claiming to be “rogue” government agency employees, including for the Department Labor, the Environmental Protection Agency and Health and Human Services.