Julia Carrie Wong, The Guardian, April 7, 2017
The US government has backed down from its attempt to unmask an anonymous Twitter account that criticized the Trump administration, a victory for free speech advocates.
Just one day after Twitter sued the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to block its effort to gain identifying information about an anonymous account, @ALT_USCIS, attorneys from the justice department contacted Twitter to inform them that the disputed summons had been withdrawn.
The withdrawal obviated the need for the suit, and Twitter filed to voluntarily dismiss its complaint.
The government’s climbdown was seen as a victory by free speech advocates, who had reacted with outrage to the revelation that government officials were targeting anonymous dissidents.
“This confirms that it was really ridiculous that this request got filed in the first place,” said Andrew Crocker, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization. “It’s good to see that it went away so quickly.”
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, tweeted: “Looks like someone wasn’t so eager to see us in court …” The ACLU had planned to represent the anonymous Twitter user in court.
“Speaking anonymously about issues of the day is a longstanding American tradition, dating back to when the framers of the constitution wrote under pseudonyms,” the ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement. “The anonymity that the first amendment guarantees is often most essential when people criticize the government, and this free speech right is as important today as ever.”
Twitter’s original complaint, filed Thursday, revealed that Customs and Border Protection (CBP), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), had issued a summons to Twitter on 14 March seeking the phone number, mailing addresses, and IP addresses associated with @ALT_USCIS.
That account is one of dozens of “alternative” Twitter accounts that have sprung up since Trump’s inauguration. The accounts purport to express the views of dissenting civil servants within various federal agencies, but they are generally anonymous and unverifiable.
The account @ALT_USCIS, whose handle refers to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, regularly criticizes Trump’s immigration policy, including the push for a travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and the proposed US-Mexico border wall.
In seeking identifying information about the account, agents from CBP cited a federal law that relates to importing merchandise.
News of CBP’s summons raised a red flag for freedom of speech and privacy advocates. Senator Ron Wyden called for an investigation by the DHS inspector general “to determine who directed this witch hunt”.
In a letter to CBP’s acting commissioner, Kevin McAleenan, on Friday, Wyden, who is the ranking member of the Senate finance committee, reiterated his request for an internal investigation “including whether the decision involved executive branch officials outside of CBP”.
Wyden wrote that he was concerned by the possibility that CBP requested the information in order to determine whether the anonymous user was a DHS employee and, if so, “take retaliatory action or otherwise squelch the exercise of first amendment right”.
“If that is the case, it raises serious concerns regarding potential violations of law that must be promptly addressed by CBP,” he wrote.
DHS declined to comment on the case Thursday, citing a policy not to comment on pending litigation. On Friday, CBP declined to comment on a list of questions regarding how and by whom the summons was crafted and approved.
Those unanswered questions, combined with the president’s ongoing hostility to both the press and his critics, continue to raise concerns for free speech advocates.
“The anonymous account holder is safe, for now,” said Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. “Perhaps the Department of Justice has learned a lesson. Perhaps the Trump administration may try to find the poster another way, for example by monitoring the government’s INS network.”
Jamie Lee Williams, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said: “The fact that they withdrew the summons doesn’t necessarily show that the new administration recognizes the importance of [anonymous] speech.
“I think they just recognized that they were going to lose.”