Feds cited incorrect law and did not get a judge’s signature for account data.
The Trump administration is demanding Twitter expose the anonymous account holder behind the @ALT_uscis handle that has been critical of the US president’s immigration policy. The handle has more than 56,000 followers since it debuted in the immediate aftermath of President Donald Trump signing his first immigration executive order. The authorities believe it is run by a government employee of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, and suspect the account is one of several so-called new “alt” Twitter feeds run by federal employees critical of the government.
The Customs and Border Protection agency, which is seeking to unmask the account holder, issued Twitter a summons (PDF), unsigned by a judge, citing a section of federal law granting border officials the power to investigate importation taxes. Twitter is refusing to unmask the account holder, saying the government is “abusing” its authority by making the demand without a legal basis.
“Beyond that boilerplate language, the CBP Summons provides no justification for issuance of a summons targeting the @ALT_USCIS account,” Twitter wrote in court documents challenging the order, which demanded that Twitter keep it a secret.
Twitter said it contacted Adam Hoffman, a US Customs and Border Protection agent who faxed over the summons. Twitter asked for an explanation about why the government wanted the information, especially because the US was invoking a law granting border officials the power to investigate whether taxes have been paid on imported merchandise.
According to Twitter:
On March 28, 2017, counsel for Twitter contacted Defendant Hoffman to raise concerns regarding the request not to provide notice to the user and the legal basis for seeking information about the identified account using a summons issued under 19 U.S.C. § 1509. Defendant Hoffman advised counsel for Twitter that CBP did not want the user notified and that he would discuss notice with his supervisors. With regard to the legal basis for the summons, Defendant Hoffman stated vaguely that he is conducting an investigation. But he did not identify any law or laws that he believed had been broken or point to any evidence substantiating any such belief—such as particular Tweets that he believes were unlawful. Defendant Hoffman took the position that the summons was an appropriate investigative tool, but he did not provide any specifics as to how a summons issued under 19 U.S.C. § 1509 could be an appropriate means for CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility to be conducting this particular investigation. In fact, to the limited extent he did explain the nature of the investigation, it seemed to confirm that the investigation had nothing to do with obtaining records to assess whether appropriate duties and taxes had been paid on imported merchandise.
Twitter said that, unless the government obtained a court order, it would not turn over the information. And even then, Twitter would first contact the account holder to give them an opportunity to challenge it, Twitter said. Hoffman said no court order would be forthcoming, according to Twitter. Regardless, Twitter said it notified the account holder, and the micro-blogging site filed suit (PDF) in San Francisco federal court Thursday asking a judge to invalidate the summons based on First Amendment grounds because Twitter believes the government is not really investigating importation taxes but instead wants to chill speech.
“Defendants could not plausibly establish that they issued the CBP Summons—which demands “[a]ll records regarding the [T]witter account @ALT_USCIS to include User names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses”—in any investigation or inquiry relating to the import of merchandise,” Twitter wrote.
The government declined comment. No hearing date has been set.