Twitter made headlines Thursday afternoon when the company announced it would file a lawsuit against the United States Government for their request to summons information regarding an account which had been used to heavily criticize Trump and his administrations policies regarding immigration. While the owner of the account is unknown, according to court documents, it is allegedly owned and operated by at least one current employee of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Consequentially, this is exactly why the Trump administration is seeking to unmask the person(s) behind it.
According to the lawsuit filed in a San Fransisco court, the Department of Homeland Security demanded that Twitter hand over customer records in association with the account so that the Federal Government could “investigate” if any misconduct had taken place. If so, this would disqualify the employee from continuing their work with the Federal Government. Long story short, the Government wanted to find out the owner of the account so that they could be fired.
Surprisingly enough, within 24 hours of first filing their lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, Twitter filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Friday, after the US Government withdrew their original request for information.
As reported by Variety, according to Esha Bhandari, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing the anonymous Twitter account owner, “The speed with which the government buckled shows just how blatantly unconstitutional its demand was in the first place.” Going on to add that “The anonymity that the First Amendment guarantees is often most essential when people criticize the government, and this free-speech right is as important today as ever.”
— ALT- Immigration 🛂 (@ALT_uscis) April 7, 2017
The Hypocrisy of Twitter In 2017
While there have been countless reports covering this story over the course of the last two days, what I have not seen anyone bring up is the hypocrisy of this whole situation from Twitters perspective.
Dating back to the beginnings of the Obama administration, Twitter has had a long standing history of fully cooperating with the United States Government and handing over customer records as requested. This is true for both criminal investigations and terrorism. Considering that it is 100% free to use and own an account on Twitters services, outside of public relations, the company has no formal or contractual burden to actually protect customer records.
In a statement made available though court a document filed on Thursday, Twitter says that “the rights of free speech afforded to Twitter’s users and Twitter itself under the U.S. Constitution include a right to disseminate such anonymous or pseudonymous free speech.” This is ironic and absolutely hypocritical because just a little over a year ago Twitter went on a mini-crusade against Anonymous accounts, literally shutting down thousands of accounts associated with Anonymous users.
— Anon Side (@UKAnonWorldWide) March 13, 2016
So why the sudden change of policy regarding customer data and why is Twitter all of a sudden protecting anonymous accounts in 2017?
I think it should be clear for everyone to see by now, but the root of Twitter’s current stand is directly related to the same problem effecting nearly every other aspect of American society right now, hard-line political partisanship. Twitter is not taking this stand because the company wants to stand up for customer privacy and civil rights, that ship sailed years ago, Twitter is doing this to take a political stand against Donald Trump and the Republican agenda in general. I mean, its not like this lawsuit was filed in the most liberal city in the most liberal state in the country – San Fransisco, California – or anything.
To be fair though, the Trump administration did make a critical mistake when “requesting” this data which ultimately led to their failure.
It is actually illegal for any company in the United States to refuse to hand over customer records or private data to the US Government, provided the company is presented with a valid warrant or subpenea for the information – ask Microsoft and Apple about that. But this is not what the US Government did in this particular case. Rather, the Government simply requested Twitter hand over the information through a summons for that information, which does not have the same legal standing as a warrant or subpenea. This is where the Federal Government ultimately went wrong here.
It remains to be seen what the Trump administration does next or if the Government will pursue a warrant for the customers records. If so and if Twitter wants to continue their ‘moral’ stand on this issue, I would expect a lengthy legal battle similar to what Apple faced when the company refused to crack the encryption for their phones at the request of US Government officials.
While it may be presumptuous to assume, I would not imagine the case ending much differently either, with another victory for the United States Government.