The US government has dropped its request for Twitter to produce records that could identify users behind an account opposed to President Donald Trump, the company has said. As a result, Twitter is withdrawing a federal lawsuit that challenged the government’s request. On Thursday, Twitter charged that efforts by the government to “unmask” the people behind the account violated the First Amendment.
“The speed with which the government buckled shows just how blatantly unconstitutional its demand was in the first place,” American Civil Liberties Union attorney Esha Bhandari said in a statement. Bhandari represents the unidentified person or people behind the Twitter account.
The account in question is @ALT_uscis, a reference to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office. In the two months of its existence, the account has been critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The account described its users to The Associated Press in February as employees and former employees of the agency.
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The account is one of dozens of rogue Twitter accounts that have sprung up since Trump took office, purporting to represent current or former federal employees at various agencies who oppose the administration’s policies. Other such “alternative” or “alt” accounts include @Alt_CDC for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and @AltUSEPA for the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the immigration agency and was named as a defendant in Twitter’s lawsuit, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
In an interview, Bhandari said the rights of anonymous speakers were at risk if the government could demand information on their identities without any legal justification. She noted that the government’s summons to Twitter had boilerplate language but lacked a specific reason for wanting to know the identities.
She said she hoped the swift withdrawal would deter other federal agencies that might target users of similar “alt” accounts.
“It really shows what a high standard the government has to meet,” she said.
In its lawsuit, Twitter claimed the government cannot compel the company to disclose users’ identities without first meeting several tests.
It must prove that a criminal or civil offence has been committed, that it’s not asking for information with the intent of suppressing free speech, and that the interests of the investigation outweigh the First Amendment rights of Twitter and its users, Twitter said.