(TNS) -- In an effort to protect users from being unmasked by the government, Twitter has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security after agents demanded that the social media company hand over information on one of several accounts identifying themselves as “alt” or “rogue” federal workers.
It’s a strong statement from Twitter, one of the last big social networks that allows users to use fake names or remain anonymous, and one that is meant to signal to users that Twitter will defend their right to privacy and free speech, experts said.
“These tech companies have so much really personal information about all of us, and part of what we do when we give them this information is trust them to be stewards of it,” said Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Speech Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “For Twitter to fight back against such a broad demand from the government to unmask is really significant.”
Twitter received a summons March 14 from Customs and Border Protection Agent Adam Hoffman ordering the social media company to produce records related to an account known as @ALT_USCIS. Like other such “alt-gov” accounts, its handle refers to the agency about which the user claims to have knowledge — in this case, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is housed under Homeland Security.
The summons demanded that Twitter produce all “records regarding the account @ALT_USCIS to include, user names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses and IP addresses,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday afternoon.
Customs and Border Patrol has limited jurisdiction outside U.S. border crossings, except for investigating the importation of goods. The agency told Twitter it was investigating the account “to ascertain the correctness of entries, to determine the liability for duties taxes, fines, penalties or forfeitures, and/or to ensure compliance with the laws or regulations” it administers.
It was not clear from the filing what alleged violations the agency was investigating.
Revealing @ALT_USCIS’ identity “would have a grave chilling effect,” Twitter wrote, on it and other accounts “created to voice dissent to government policies.”
Since President Trump’s inauguration in January, several of these accounts have appeared on Twitter. Some self-identify as federal employees who do not agree with how their agency, or the government at large, is being run. Others claim to be former federal workers, and still others say they are private citizens.
Nearly all are run anonymously or use fake names and identifiers — which makes it hard to tell whether these accounts are legitimate or not.
“Social media allows people who feel their speech might be limited by their jobs to create alternative personas to express alternative views,” said Dana R. Fisher, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland. “And the way these alt and rogue accounts have taken off and come to represent a kind of resistance from within is really fascinating.”
The @ALT_USCIS account was registered in January, according to its Twitter profile.Most of its tweets have been sharply critical of the Trump administration’s immigration polices, including the president’s promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and recent attempts to ban immigrants from several Muslim-majority nations.
Twitter’s policy on turning over user information to law enforcement requires that government agencies provide a subpoena or court order to justify why the agency requires the information.
“The government can’t invade someone’s right to free, anonymous speech just because they don’t like what they’re saying,” Llansó said.
The American Civil Liberties Union announced Thursday it will join Twitter’s case.
This is not the first time the social media company has been at odds with the government.
In 2012, Twitter defended an Occupy Wall Street protester in a New York appeals court after the government requested the company turn over tweets and personal information.
Two years later, Twitter sued the federal government, challenging Obama-era policies that barred the social media company from publishing information about how user data was being used in government surveillance.
By late Thursday, the Twitter account at the center of the lawsuit had pinned an image of the First Amendment to the top of their Twitter feed.
“FYI,” the user wrote, “some refugees became refugees out of fear of being unmasked by dictators because of dissent/opposing views. Let’s not have that here.”
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.