Government Goes After Critic on Twitter, Remembers Constitution Just in Time

For a few weeks, the government seemed to forget that the Constitution protects the right to speak anonymously. Thankfully, the prospect of a legal challenge from Twitter and the ACLU appears to have jogged its memory.

On March 14, U.S. Customs and Border Protection sent Twitter a demand for information that could unmask the user behind the @ALT_uscis Twitter account, which is run by an anonymous speaker critical of the government’s immigration policies. Oddly, CBP issued the summons under the Tariff Act of 1930, a statute intended only for inquiries related to the trade of merchandise. The government’s demand seems to have been motivated by a desire to stifle the content of the tweets.

The First Amendment prohibits government attempts to unmask a speaker simply because it disagrees with him or her. Constitutional strike one.

And CBP sought not only identifying information about the user — including the account’s login information, phone number, mailing address, and IP address — but also “[a]ll information regarding” the account. Such a request, which could sweep in private direct messages and other sensitive information, violates not just the First but also the Fourth Amendment. Constitutional strike two.

Recognizing the demand for what it was — unlawful and illegitimate government overreach — Twitter filed a lawsuit last week asking the court to nullify the summons and declare it unconstitutional and unenforceable. We represented the user and intended to file in the case on the user’s behalf. But less than 24 hours after Twitter filed, CBP buckled and withdrew the summons. As a result, Twitter dismissed the suit and the @ALT_ uscis user is able to continue speaking, free from the specter of government interference.

The ability of @ALT_uscis to tweet anonymously is incredibly important, both to the user and to a free society. Anonymity plays a central — and constitutionally protected — role in the time-honored tradition of advocacy and dissent. Our founding fathers authored the Federalist Papers as “Publius” (and heard from “the Federal Farmer” in response). That means that the drafters of the Constitution themselves relied on pseudonyms to express views on the central political issues of their day. So it is no surprise that the Supreme Court has recognized time and again that the right to speak freely necessarily includes the right to speak anonymously, which empowers individuals who otherwise might not feel free to speak out against the majority to criticize the government or to mobilize for change.

This free speech right is as important today as ever. The @ALT_uscis user relies on the ability to speak anonymously when sharing public information with the account’s tens of thousands of followers, and when expressing views that are critical of the government. That user isn’t alone — in the aftermath of President Trump’s inauguration, many “alt” accounts criticizing various government agencies were created. The government can no more erase them from existence than it can do away with the First Amendment, and its attempt in this case probably didn’t go quite as planned: When word of the suit got out, the number of @ALT_ uscis’ Twitter followers jumped from 32,000 to 192,000 today. Censorship has a way of piquing the public’s interest.

Using a pseudonym enables the user behind @ALT_uscis to speak without fear of personal attacks and harassment, and without having to worry about being targeted for investigation based on the content of the tweets. Now out from under a government summons seeking to unmask the account, the user can fully enjoy that freedom again.

We are thankful that Twitter stood up for the rights of the user and took a strong position in defense of the First Amendment. And we appreciate that the government came to its senses this time. We are also ready to respond should it forget again.

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The Free Texan

Unfortunately the government already knows who the account users are. The "lawsuit" and threats are merely a mask to confirm what they think they already know. Don't be fooled by officials who come on TV spouting rhetoric when they don't know squat about technology. Senior and even mid level officials and managers have little clue about technology and the internet. Sadly the older the official the more ignorant they are and resistant to learning. Their agents are collecting billions of records daily and electronically sifting through them picking out their own personal peeves.

Don't let Twitter fool you either. Corporations are a cross section of America like everything else. Employees within Twitter are sympathetic to the government and help them capture information.

Do you really think the government is incapable of planting employees into organizations they need information from? On the contrary, various government agencies have employees in almost all Fortune 500 companies at some level. i.e Rex Tillerson. Exon CEO and ex-government contractor, now head of the State Department.

Anonymous

In the names you've mentioned, you have better demonstrated that corporations have their claws in government rather than vice versa. Government is just an entity meant to represent the people. But wealth - specifically corporate wealth - has subverted that purpose.

Aias

Conspiracy theories are not what we need right now.

That some companies may collect and distribute information that is against their TOS or the law is likely.
That the government is able to discover information on company servers through NSA efforts is likely - it isn't, however legally actionable and both of these would create openings for legal action against the corporation and government.

Anonymous......

Hey "Anonymous" ACLU readers and commenters. The government knows exactly who you are. How? They mass collect the IP (internet protocol) addresses of all users who post to the ACLU for "safety" purposes. They don't want any "crazies" posting subversive activity to the page as it might incite action to change.

They accomplish through a network of AT&T and other corporate informants who provide frequent downloads of activity and router addresses. From this the agents can narrow down who and where posted what.

Please know your internet privacy is not PRIVATE. As soon as you connect a a router to the "internet" it is identified by type and location by the NSA and others authorized to mass collect.

The key is "mass collect". Absolutely the government is authorized to collect your info anytime anywhere. However, they (in theory) are not allowed to use it unless you commit a crime. Yup, a crime as simple as running a red light or stop sign.

Yes that's correct, the government IS authorized to collect and store all electronic communication in the United States forever. Then they decide when to use it against you!

Don't date Feds

How the FBI collects your data, never mind the NSA.

My ex-wife dated an asshole with FBI agent friends and my info was "mass collected" in sweeps. So if you think all people are on the "up and up" think again. Dicks and wet vaginas Trump legalities.

So if you use email on your IPad or IPhone, you are tracked. Well you should know that when you enter your user name and password into the apple device it is transmitted to "corporate", more often contractors, then aggregated.

What does that mean? It means all of your emails are copied onto an apple server for storage and use for your device. Even if you delete emails from your desktop computer, via your account, they may and will still show up on your device.

How can this happen? It happens because apple and others don't know how long you want to access and search emails so they archive them whether you delete them or not.

Anonymous

To clarify, you call out iPhones and iPads but any device and especially any other device other than Apple manufactured devices are prone. Apple as a corporate rule does not sell your information. They derive no income from that. That's not their business plan. Google on the other hand sells your information, that's how they make their money, that is their business plan. With Google, you are not the customer, you are the product they are selling.

berta peterson-smith

oh heck! 80 yr old great grandma here. so you are saying my reading the aclu posts means, if I commit a little misdemeanor, the govt is going to scoop up my aging a__?

They are coming...

Yup, possibly.
Get on an local officials bad radar and they will scoop your ass up. Local FBI directors, DEA managers, ICE directors and others all collude to "enforce" the laws they CHOOSE to enforce in there area. Do you think it's an anomaly that in the south blacks are targeted disproportionately for drug offenses? Or that gays are intimidated by the very local police supposed to protect them.
I mean get real, there are still places in Alabama and Mississippi that have signs that read "No Niggers on the Mountain after Dark!" WTF. Is this America? Sure is, ask the local white sheriff that looks the other way. Jim Crow didn't die, he just changed his name...

Darren Chaker

Totally outrageous form of trying to silence speech through Gov't intimidation. Because people criticize Gov't doesn't make it a Gov't interest to unmask the user or restrict speech. We are a great country for the very reason we can challenge Gov't, be critical, as long as our speech is not threatening. Let's remain a great country!

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