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In a legal fight against Twitter, the Trump administration blinked

Updated
Donald Trump’s presidency has generated all kinds of notable developments, including an important one through social media: career officials at various agencies, unhappy with the executive branch’s new direction, claim to have created various “alt” and “rogue” Twitter accounts to voice their dissatisfaction, publicly but anonymously.

There are plenty of questions about the legitimacy of these accounts, and it’s difficult to say with confidence whether they’re actually controlled by frustrated administration officials – as opposed to people pretending to be associated with the agencies. That said, accounts like @Alt_Labor and @Alt_CDC are active and popular feeds, which may offer a meaningful peek behind the scenes.

And then there’s the @ALT_USCIS account, which as the New York Times reported, has become the basis for a bizarre controversy.
Last month, the federal government issued a summons ordering Twitter to hand over information about an anonymous account that had posted messages critical of the Trump administration. Now, the government has blinked.

Customs and Border Protection on Friday withdrew its demand that Twitter unmask the anonymous account, a day after the social media company sued the government to block the summons. The person or people behind the account in question, @ALT_USCIS, had claimed to be a current employee of Citizenship and Immigration Services and had regularly posted messages at odds with White House policy.
The dispute appears to have ended quickly, but the fact that Trump administration officials even picked this fight is amazing.

@ALT_USCIS was created in January, and its purpose was hardly subtle: according to the account’s owner (or owners), @ALT_USCIS is intended to offer an inside perspective of a Citizenship and Immigration Services employee who believes Donald Trump’s policies are wrong.

The Department of Homeland Security evidently learned of the Twitter account, and told the social-media company to disclose its creator. In fact, the official demand said Customs and Border Protection is authorized by law to obtain such information “for investigations and inquiries relating to the importation of merchandise.”

In this contest, that didn’t appear to make any sense – tweets aren’t merchandise, and they’re neither imported nor exported – and Twitter, not surprisingly, refused to comply.

But that’s not all it did. Twitter also sued the Trump administration, arguing that the DHS order was unlawful, and the very idea that the government could order the company to disclose an account’s owner would create “a grave chilling effect.”

“A time-honored tradition of pseudonymous free speech on matters of public moment runs deep in the political life of America,” Twitter said in its filing. “These First Amendment interests are at their zenith when, as here, the speech at issue touches on matters of public political life.”

I was just starting to look forward to a great legal fight, until this afternoon. Trump administration, one day after getting sued, blinked, effectively telling Twitter, “Um, never mind. We’re slinking away now.”

Administration officials probably won’t try to pull this stunt again, at least not anytime soon, though it’s worth considering the broader implications. If the Department of Homeland Security was this concerned about the @ALT_USCIS account, are we to assume the administration considers it credible and legitimate? Should the public look to this account, which has gained quite a few more followers this week, as a proper source for accurate information from an official within the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services?

Technology and Twitter

In a legal fight against Twitter, the Trump administration blinked

Updated