Soon after Donald Trump’s inauguration, persons critical of the president and his administration began creating anonymous Twitter accounts claiming to be dissident members of the federal government, such as the famous “Alt BLM” and “Rogue POTUS Staff” users. Today, Twitter is filing suit against the U.S. government, exposing an attempt to expose and attack one such account.
The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, says the @ALT_USCIS Twitter account is now being targeted by the Department of Homeland Security:
On March 14, 2017, Defendant Adam Hoffman, an agent within U.S. Customs and Border Protection, transmitted to Twitter by fax a summons, ordering Twitter to produce certain records pertaining to the @ALT_USCIS account. The CBP Summons invoked as authority 19 U.S.C. § 1509. It was signed by Defendant Stephen P. Caruso, a CBP Special Agent in Charge based in Miramar, Florida. A true and accurate copy of the CBP Summons, in the form it was received by Twitter, is attached as Exhibit A.
43. The CBP Summons states that Twitter is “required” to “produce for inspection” “[a]ll records regarding the [T]witter account @ALT_USCIS to include, User names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses.” The purpose of this request appears to be, and the effect of Twitter’s complying with it likely would be, to enable or help to enable Defendants to pierce the anonymity of the person or persons who established and use the @ALT_USCIS account.
Homeland Security further asked that Twitter keep the very existence of the summons secret, and added that “failure to comply with this summons will render you liable to proceedings in a U.S. District Court to enforce compliance with this summons as well as other sanctions.” When Twitter replied stating that such a demand would require a court order, Special Agent Adam Hoffman of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, in the companies words, that “no such court order would be obtained.” Strangely, the summons specified a deadline for disclosure of @ALT_USCIS’s user information that occurred the day before the summons was even faxed to Twitter. Regardless of the fact that many of these “alt accounts” appear to be individuals pretending to be members of a given federal agency, removing their anonymity simply because they are criticizing the president would be a devastating blow to Twitter’s ability to facilitate free speech.
Twitter is now asking the court to declare that “the CBP Summons is unlawful and unenforceable because it violates the First Amendment rights of both Twitter and its users by seeking to unmask the identity of one or more anonymous Twitter users voicing criticism of the government on matters of public concern.” Esha Bhandari of the ACLU told The Intercept that the group is personally defending the Twitter account owner, and will be filing “in court shortly to defend the user’s rights, focusing on the user’s First Amendment right to speak anonymously.” Although Bhandari would not comment on whether the account is actually run by a federal employee or employees, she noted that “on the face of the summons the government has offered no reason for seeking this information.”
Senator Ron Wyden, an outspoken online privacy advocate, provided the following statement:
“The Department of Homeland Security appears to have abused its authority and wasted taxpayer resources, all to uncover an anonymous critic on Twitter. The DHS Inspector General should investigate to determine who directed this witch hunt. Twitter deserves credit for standing up for its users against this government overreach.”
Update: April 6th, 2017, 4:48 p.m.
This piece was updated with a comment from the ACLU.
Update: April 6th, 2017, 8:45 p.m.
This piece was updated with a comment from Senator Ron Wyden
Update: April 7th, 2017, 1:57 p.m.
DHS has withdrawn its summons, and Twitter has withdrawn its corresponding complaint.