By Jeff Bess
During the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, Twitter accounts purporting to represent unofficial “resistance” factions of federal agencies emerged and proliferated alternative perspectives on the inner workings of the Trump administration and its policies. These accounts claim to represent holdover factions from the Obama administration and career officials in agencies and government organizations such as the National Parks Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The accounts issued frequent tweets critiquing the Trump administration’s policies across a variety of issues. Agencies “represented” by “alternative” Twitter accounts run the gamut from the Department of Justice to NASA to the National Weather Service.
The Trump administration, of course, is not thrilled that these “alternative” Twitter accounts are spreading negative commentary about its policies. The accounts have often been heavily critical of the president, his policies, and members of his administration. Some of the accounts have even been openly hostile towards the current administration’s legitimacy and claim to be “resistance” elements bent on derailing Trump’s presidency.
In response to the “alternative” Twitter accounts and their messaging, the administration sought earlier this month to “unmask” the identities of those accounts’ administrators. In particular, United States Customs and Border Protection demanded by summons that Twitter reveal identifying information for those that run the “alternative” United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS). The basis for their demand was that the (self-claimed) employee or employees of USCIS that run the account were issuing statements contrary to federal enforcement policy and beyond their authority as enforcement agents. The government alleged that whoever was behind the tweets would necessarily be violating their employment agreement and state confidence.
Following the summons, Twitter sued the federal government to block disclosure of the account holder’s personally identifying information. In lawsuit filings, Twitter claimed that the summons was illegal and because of the summons’ “grave chilling effect” on speech, it would discourage others from criticizing the federal government. Twitter also filed documents that reveal details and proof of the government’s efforts to suppress the spread of certain content on Twitter.
In an interesting turn of events, the federal government withdrew its complaint and summons after Twitter filed its suit. This action “defused” the agency’s ability to expose what it views as objectionable policy moves by the administration. Additionally, this move by Twitter allowed the Department of Justice to dodge a direct response to questions regarding how the action may impact immigration enforcement by retracting its statement.
Actions like this one, filed by major social media players such as Twitter, may be essential to ensuring a free and open internet in the future. Twitter’s move demonstrates the impact that leading technology firms can have on law and policy. More specifically, this case illustrates how plaintiffs can function as whistleblowers and hold the government accountable to the rule of law.
Twitter’s action is a model for other technology and social media firms in two ways: (1) stand up for your clients’/customers’ rights, and (2) use their platform to spread public awareness of security and privacy breaches. Moves by technology firms to collectively challenge other Trump administration initiatives may foreshadow greater cooperation in this space going forward. In the wake of the “travel ban,” technology firms came together in opposition to the policy and a group of Silicon Valley executives, engineers, and others are forming a group to organize against that and other elements of the Trump administration’s agenda.