April 6, 2017 Last Updated 2:03 pm

Twitter files to prevent US govt. agencies seeking to unmask the ‘Alt Immigration’ account holder

Update: The government apparently didn’t like the bad publicity and has withdrawn its request to unmaks the Twitter account holder. Find update here.

Twitter has filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection to attempt to prevent the government from forcing the social media platform to reveal the account of @ALT_USCIS (PDF). The complaint was filed in US District Court, Northern District of California. (Twitter is incorporated in Delaware, but based in San Francisco.)

The account is one of many that was set up after the incoming Trump administration began to purge agencies of Obama administration holdovers, as well as after the new administration began changing policies regarding immigration, the environment, etc.

“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 complaint states. “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.”

The alt-accounts mentioned in the suit were originally assumed to have been started by agency members, but that could never be confirmed, and some may not actually have any affiliation with present or past members of the agencies. Nonetheless, the accounts have been highly critical of the administration, and Twitter is seeking to defend the identities of the account holders.

“The motivations these users have for preserving their anonymity presumably include a desire to speak freely and without the fear of negative consequences that may flow from being identified as the source of controversial views and commentary concerning the Administration and its agencies,” the suit said. “Such fears are likely to be especially great for users of “alternative agency” accounts who are currently employed by the very agency that is a principal target of the commentary, in light of the retaliation, harassment, or even loss of livelihood that might occur if their real identities became known to their superiors.”

Twitter says that the government on March 14 issued to Twitter an administrative summons demanding that the company provide them records that would unmask the account holders. The suit asks the court to declare the summons unlawful and enjoin its enforcement.

Also named in the suit, in addition to the agencies involved, are John F. Kelly, Secretary of DHS, Kevin K. McAleena, Acting Commissioner of CBP, Stephen P. Caruso, a special agent in charge within CBP, and Adam Hoffman, a special agent within the Office of Professional Responsibility of CBP.

BuzzFeed is reporting that the ACLU will be representing the @ALT_USCIS account holder.

“To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification. But in this case the government has given no reason at all, leading to concerns that it is simply trying to stifle dissent,” the ACLU told BuzzFeed.

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