Twitter sues Homeland Security to protect anonymity of ‘Alt Immigration’ account

The lawsuit from Twitter alleges that DHS demanded to know the name, login information, phone number, mailing address and IP address of the user behind the account and threatened that failure to comply could lead to court actions.

Twitter also says DHS “requested” that the company not reveal the existence of the summons. Twitter did not comply with either the summons or the request for silence — instead, the company is asking a federal court to declare the summons “unlawful and unenforceable.”

The Twitter account in question is @ALT_uscis, as in “alternative U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” It’s one of a wave of accounts started in late January and early February after the Trump administration set limits on social media postings from a number of agencies.

You may remember that a Twitter account for Badlands National Park went rogue, tweeting about climate change. After that act of resistance was shut down, a number of “alternative” accounts — for national parks and all kinds of other government agencies — sprang up.

Some accounts say they are run by fans/supporters. Others claim to be run by actual government employees, which is difficult to verify. As for @ALT_uscis, The Associated Press reports that the people behind the account told the wire service they were “employees and former employees of the agency.”

Identifying which employees was apparently the goal of the DHS summons, demanding Twitter produce “all records” associated with the account or face legal consequences.

Lawyers for the social media giant say that the summons was itself illegal — a violation of the First Amendment rights of @ALT_uscis as well as of Twitter itself — and unenforceable.

They note that @ALT_uscis was expressing dissent, criticizing immigration policies and disagreeing with other Trump administration policies. (The account’s older tweets have since been deleted; some screenshots are shared in the court filing and more recent tweets follow the same trend.)

Identifying the user “would chill the expression of particularly valuable political speech,” Twitter says.

The company says on its site it releases private user data only in case of emergency or through the proper legal processes, like a court order. In the lawsuit, it says that to demand a user be unmasked, the government must demonstrate a law was violated, prove that identifying the user is the “least restrictive” way of investigating the offense, and make the case that it isn’t trying to suppress free speech or violate the First Amendment. (Twitter has a process for law enforcement officers seeking private information, which requires a court order, subpoena or proof of emergency.)

“Defendants have not come close to making any of those showings,” the company’s lawyers write.

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