It’s Twitter vs the Government in a Battle Over Free Speech

April 7, 2017 - 3 minutes read

As if President Trump’s relationship to tech wasn’t already fraught enough, Twitter announced yesterday that it is filing a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security for attempting to unmask the anonymous user (or users) behind the @ALT_USCIS account. One of the several rogue government agency accounts that have popped up since the election to oppose Trump’s agenda, the ALT_USCIS account has been relentlessly criticizing the new administration’s immigration policies. What makes the account especially subversive is its allegations about the dysfunctional operations of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that suggest an intimate knowledge of the agency. Perhaps that is what drove a Customs and Border Patrol agent to fax Twitter back in March, insisting on private information related to the account including the account login, phone numbers, and IP and mailing addresses. And as any app developer familiar with Twitter’s core convictions about free speech might expect, the company is not going to give that information up without a fight.

Requesting that sort of information is outside a Customs and Border Patrol agent’s jurisdiction, but this is first and foremost a First Amendment issue. “To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, the ACLU attorney defending whoever is behind the account. “But in this case the government has given no reason at all, leading to concerns that it is simply trying to stifle dissent.” Going back to the days of the Arab Spring, Twitter has been comfortable, even proud of, being a platform for dissent. As mobile app developers know, the company stands by free expression to the point that it has been hesitant to intervene even as trolling and hate speech have made the platform unbearable for many users.

This news broke the same week the real USCIS made changes to the H-1B visa program, a move that created pandemonium for major tech employers and high-skilled foreign workers hoping to catch a break in America. USCIS issued a memo last Friday saying that computer programmers no longer fall under the category of “specialty” workers. On Monday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would start targeting companies that hire significant amounts of employees in the country with visas. Wherever Los Angeles app developers stand on the complicated H-1B issue, the administration’s erratic approach is less than encouraging. Between the attack on free speech on Twitter, the poor handling of the visa program, the “Energy Independence” executive order, and the rollback of FCC regulations protecting consumer privacy, the Trump administration and tech have had a rocky few weeks — and there’s little indication that the relationship will improve anytime soon.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,