The U.S. government may be responding to trolls or hunting for leakers. Either way, Twitter is accusing the Trump Administration of exceeding the scope of its rightful authority and flouting the First Amendment by demanding information to unmask the identities of some of the social media service's users.
Through a lawsuit filed on Thursday in California federal court, Twitter seeks to stop the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection from compelling production of records in accordance with a summons.
According to the complaint, "In the days and weeks following the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump, a new and innovative class of American speakers emerged on Twitter's ubiquitous online platform: speakers who purport to be current or former employees of federal agencies, or others with special insights about the agencies, who provide views and commentary that is often vigorously opposed, resistant, or 'alternative' to the official actions and policies of the new Administration."
Twitter further explains that individuals are identifying particular federal agencies "to criticize and with which the user purports to have significant knowledge."
The U.S. government apparently wants information about the individual(s) behind @ALT_USCIS, an account from those claiming to be employees of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services who are highlighting waste and mismanagement at the agency and also casting doubt on Trump administration policies.
Twitter says government agencies are threatening the users' anonymity by issuing an administrative summons, but the sole statutory authority invoked authorizes the production of only a narrow class of records related to the importation of merchandise.
"But CBP's investigation of the @ALT_USCIS account plainly has nothing whatsoever to do with the importation of merchandise into the United States," alleges the complaint.
Twitter says that permitting the government to pierce the pseudonym of the account "would have a grave chilling effect on the speech of that account in particular and on the many other 'alternative agency' accounts that have been created to voice dissent to government policies."
Pointing to the way the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized the essential need to foster political speech, Twitter requests the court declare the summons unlawful and enjoin its enforcement.
Here's the complaint.
Twitter is being represented by attorneys at Wilmer Cutler including Seth Waxman, formerly the country's solicitor general under President Bill Clinton.
The ACLU is representing the anonymous Twitter user. The group's lawyer Nathan Freed Wessler says, "We are pleased to see Twitter standing up for its users' rights, and the ACLU will soon be filing documents in court on behalf of this user. 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."