Twitter defied a U.S. government request made on March 14 for records (IP addresses and any associated phone number or mailing address) that could identify who is behind ALT_uscis, an account critical of U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. The company yesterday filed a lawsuit in a San Francisco federal court to block the order, but today dropped the suit after the Department of Homeland Security withdrew its attempt to unmask the account. Tech companies should have stepped up and backed Twitter in its fight.
The “alt” in the Twitter account’s handle refers to a group of Twitter accounts from over a dozen U.S. government agencies critical of the president’s views. The “uscis” refers to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and this particular account describes itself as “immigration resistance.” At least one current or former federal immigration employee is thought to be behind the account.
Twitter’s lawsuit was very clear: The U.S. government cannot compel the company to disclose the identity of any of its users without first proving that a criminal or civil offense has been committed, that it will not use said information to stifle free speech, and that the interests of the investigation outweigh First Amendment rights. Meanwhile, the U.S. government did not specify a reason for wanting to unmask the Twitter handle.
It should surprise no one that the American Civil Liberties Union backed Twitter:
We're glad Twitter is pushing back. We'll be going to court to defend this user's right to anonymous speech. https://t.co/tqj5XrNvgn
— ACLU National (@ACLU) April 6, 2017
But Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and many others should also have made their stance clear. And even though this particular case appears to be over, they still can.
All these companies offer services and platforms where users can publicly criticize an administration. If Twitter lost this battle, it would have set an incredibly dangerous precedent for the Trump administration to unmask not just more Twitter users, but any account that the government demands.
If they had more time, I would have expected tech companies to file amicus briefs (legal documents supplied by non-litigants with a strong interest in the subject matter). Briefs can be used to add additional information or arguments that the court might wish to consider, as well as underline the implications for the broader public or a given industry. The turnaround time was too short here, but the fact they didn’t release statements earlier in support of Twitter is the real disappointment.
To be fair, it is possible that the U.S. government had a perfectly valid reason for unmasking the identity of this particular account. That said, an explanation was not provided, Homeland Security asked for Twitter to keep the summons secret, and ultimately the whole thing fell apart in less than 24 hours. Any of the above was reason enough for tech companies to publicly back Twitter and criticize the administration’s demands.
This is not a right versus left issue. This is a freedom of speech issue. I would be arguing for tech companies to back Twitter regardless of which party was in the White House.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.
VentureBeatVentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative technology and transact. Our site delivers essential information on data technologies and strategies to guide you as you lead your organizations. We invite you to become a member of our community, to access:
- up-to-date information on the subjects of interest to you
- our newsletters
- gated thought-leader content and discounted access to our prized events, such as Transform 2021: Learn More
- networking features, and more