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Twitter sues Homeland Security over effort to unmask critic's identity

Twitter Inc. filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on April 6, in what it said was an effort to stop the agency and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection from "unmasking" the identity of a user behind an account criticizing the administration of President Donald Trump.

By attempting to determine the users behind the @ALT_USCIS account, which has taken aim at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agencies were "unlawfully abusing a limited purpose investigatory tool," Twitter said. That would violate the free speech rights of the user and Twitter itself, the company said in a suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Twitter said it received an administrative summons from DHS and CBP seeking records about the creators of the @ALT_USCIS account on March 14.

In in its suit, the company noted that a series of "alternative agency" accounts have proliferated in the wake of President Trump's inauguration critiquing agencies such as the Department of Labor and the Bureau of Land Management. The accounts often purport to be run by employees of the agency they are criticizing, Twitter said. It's uncertain if the @ALT_USCIS account or any other similar accounts are authentic.

"The motivations these users have for preserving their anonymity presumably include a desire to speak freely and without the fear of negative consequences that may flow from being identified as the source of controversial views and commentary concerning the Administration and its agencies," Twitter argued.

Immigration issues have particularly emerged as a point of contention between Silicon Valley companies and the Trump administration. In February, Twitter, Facebook Inc., Microsoft Corp., Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. filed a friend of the court brief calling President Trump's first version of a travel ban directed at residents of seven Muslim-majority companies "unlawful." A smaller group of companies that did not include the Silicon Valley giants also publicly opposed a revised ban, which a federal judge in Hawaii later struck down.

The American Civil Liberties Union offered its support. "We're glad Twitter is pushing back. We'll be going to court to defend this user's right to anonymous speech," the civil liberties group said in an April 6 tweet.