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Twitter Fights Effort by Customs and Border Protection to Identify Administration Critic

Update (April 7, 2017): According to a new filing [.pdf], the Justice Department told Twitter that CBP's request had been withdrawn, and the government no longer seeks to identify the Twitter user. In response, Twitter dropped its suit.

Twitter is fighting an attempt by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency to obtain identifying information about an “alternative agency” Twitter account, @ALT_uscis. EFF applauds Twitter for standing up for users’ free speech and swiftly pushing back on the government's attempts to identify a prominent critic. The government must not be able to use its formidable investigatory powers to intimidate and silence its critics, and CBP made almost no effort to justify its request. As Twitter’s complaint [.pdf] explains, the request should be barred by the First Amendment.

Since January, accounts like @ALT_uscis have sprung up to criticize Trump administration policy on several fronts, including climate change, foreign relations, and immigration. Although some of these accounts purport to be operated by employees of government agencies, they usually tweet without identifying themselves.

Anonymous political speech has a proud place in American history, going back to the country’s founding. It includes the pseudonymous publication of the Federalist Papers, and the first editions of Common Sense, which did not identify Thomas Paine. Not surprising, therefore, that the First Amendment places a high bar on any attempt to unmask anonymous or pseudonymous speakers to protect them from “the tyranny of the majority,” as the Supreme Court put it in 1995.

EFF has long defended the right to anonymous speech, including representing users who have sought to protect themselves against unmasking. As this case demonstrates, though, tech companies have a crucial role to play in this fight. We’ve called on companies to fight back against illegitimate or overbroad requests for user data, and to notify users of requests in all cases, unless specifically barred from law. Here, Twitter did both. We stand ready to help both Twitter and the user, and we hope other companies will follow their lead.

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