Updated at 1:52 p.m. on April 7
The U.S. government backed down from its efforts to compel Twitter to unmask a pseudonymous critic of the Trump administration, according to court filings filed Friday.
The social-media company withdrew a First Amendment lawsuit it filed Thursday after the U.S. Customs and Border Protection withdrew an administrative summons issued to the company in March. The summons had demanded that Twitter “produce for inspection…[a]ll records regarding the [T]witter account @ALT_USCIS to include, User names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses.” In its original complaint, the company had asked a federal district court in California to block the agency from enforcing the summons.
@ALT_uscis is one of dozens of pseudonymous Twitter accounts imitating federal agencies that sprung up shortly after President Trump took office in January. The “uscis” part of its name seems to refer to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security. Twitter allows users to create accounts under either a real or fake name, and none of the accounts have been publicly linked to a past or present government employee. Virtually all of them are highly critical of the Trump administration, including @ALT_uscis, whose bio includes the phrase “immigration resistance.”
The lawsuit said the agency ordered Twitter to provide the information by 11:45 a.m. on March 13, one day before an official from CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility actually faxed the summons to the company. With the information requested, Twitter told the court, the CBP would be able to “pierce the anonymity of the person or persons who established and use the @ALT_USCIS account.” Twitter argued that providing the information to the CBP would violate the First Amendment’s free-speech protections.
“Compelled disclosure of the identities of Twitter users who have engaged in pseudonymous speech would chill their exercise of the constitutionally protected right to speak anonymously,” the company said in its original filing. “Moreover, independent of its users’ rights, Twitter’s actions in providing a platform for the dissemination of its users’ speech—including its decision to permit the publication of pseudonymous speech—is fully protected by the First Amendment.”
The operator—or operators—of the @ALT_uscis account, which has more than 33,000 followers, apparently agrees. In a tweet shortly after news of the lawsuit broke, the account posted a screenshot of the First Amendment.
In addition to the constitutional argument, Twitter claimed the CBP order exceeds the legal authority of the federal law under which it was issued. The cited provision, known as Section 1509, allows certain DHS officials to examine a company’s records in “any investigation or inquiry conducted for the purpose of ascertaining the correctness of any entry, for determining the liability of any person for duty, fees and taxes due or duties, fees and taxes which may be due the United States, for determining liability for fines and penalties, or for insuring compliance with the laws of the United States administered by the United States Customs Service.”
But Twitter argued the rationales listed in Section 1509 “clearly relate narrowly to imports,” and said the CBP couldn’t establish that its summons was related to “any investigation or inquiry relating to the import of merchandise.” As it is, it’s highly doubtful the account is involved in the import-export business. In the lawsuit, Twitter said the CBP officer who issued the summons “stated vaguely that he is conducting an investigation,” but offered the company’s legal team no further details about it.
Twitter’s complaint also took a thinly veiled jab at Trump’s recent legal woes. In a larger contention about the legal standards for subpoenas, the company cited Makaeff v. Trump University as precedent. President Trump recently settled that case, a class-action lawsuit accusing his for-profit real-estate seminars of fraudulent business practices, for $25 million.
The agency’s pursuit of personal information from Twitter users was in sharp contrast with the social-media platform’s ubiquity in modern Washington and the Trump administration. Trump himself has been a prolific user of the medium for years, to both his advantage and detriment during the campaign and in office. Nearly all members of Congress, White House officials, and federal agencies maintain official accounts in their name, although few share Trump’s penchant for digital provocation.
Even top federal officials aren’t above creating pseudonymous accounts. FBI Director James Comey mentioned offhand during a think-tank event last month that he secretly uses Twitter and Instagram and “care[s] deeply about privacy, treasure[s] it.” Gizmodo tracked down both accounts within 24 hours