U.S. Customs agency withdraws Twitter summons over ‘alternative agency’ account

Photo via Customs and Border Protection/Flickr (Public Domain)

This was a losing battle, the U.S. government agency soon realized.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Friday withdrew a request to Twitter for details about the person (or persons) behind a so-called “alternative agency” account.

On March 13, CBP faxed Twitter an administrative summons demanding access to records regarding the Twitter account @ALT_USCIS—an account that purports to be run by employees of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a federal agency that, like CBP, falls under Homeland Security’s umbrella. CBP asked Twitter to include in its reply: “User names, account login, phone numbers, mailing addresses, and I.P. addresses.”

Numerous such “alternative agency” accounts sprung up following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. As Twitter defined them in a court filing, the accounts represent “speakers who purport to be current or former employees of federal agencies, or others with special insights about the agencies, who provide views and commentary that is if often vigorously opposed… or ‘alternative’ to the official actions and policies of the new Administration.”

On multiple occasions, the @ALT_USCIS account has claimed that it is run by a current federal employee.

The creation of the “alt” accounts were likely prompted by news that the White House, immediately following the inauguration, had instituted a “media blackout” at multiple federal agencies, including the Departments of Transportation and Agriculture, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

Certain official accounts, run by various offices at the National Park Service, were also gagged by the White House after “unauthorized users” continued tweeting out facts about climate change—a chief concern of the Obama White House but one that the Republican administration avoids like kryptonite.

In a complaint filed this week, Twitter fought back against the summons, arguing that it was both illegal and unconstitutional. In all likelihood, CBP deduced it was in for a losing battle.

https://twitter.com/ALT_uscis/status/850399183127273472

Specifically, Twitter took issue with the authority CBP claimed in the summons derived from Chapter 19, Section 1509 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which authorizes the agency to obtain records—but only to further investigations related to the importation of merchandise. Moreover, Twitter argued that the types of records requested by CBP did not fall within the scope of its authority under Section 1509.

While 1509 imposes certain record-keeping responsibilities on those who “import or cause goods to be imported,” as Twitter accurately asserted, “The CBP Summons plainly does not request records relating to the importation of merchandise.”

The misapplication of 1509 was not Twitter’s only concern, however. The summons also violated the First Amendment rights, it argued, of the @ALT_USCIS account holder. “Compelled disclosure of the identities of Twitter users who have engaged in pseudonymous speech would chill their exercise of the constitutionally protected right to speak anonymously,” Twitter’s complaint said.

Twitter cited the case of McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995)—finding that an Ohio statute banning anonymous political literature was unconstitutional—in which then-Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Paul Stevens wrote: “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation—and their ideas from suppression—at the hand of an intolerant society.”

In McIntyre, as Twitter’s complaint noted, The Federalist Papers were also cited as prime example of cherished pseudonymous political literature: “Undoubtedly the most famous pieces of American political advocacy are The Federalist Papers, penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, but published under the pseudonym ‘Publius.’”

“The Constitution does not permit a government agency to suppress dissent voiced by current or former employees in their private capacity—especially when such efforts exceed the agency’s statutory authority,” wrote Twitter, citing the case of Lane v. Franks (2014), which held that “citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by accepting public employment.”

On Friday, Twitter officially withdrew its complaint because the CBP summons “has now been withdrawn.” (The American Civil Liberties Union had previously told BuzzFeed News that it intended to represent the @ALT_USCIS user “raising statutory and constitutional arguments.”)

Afterward, the @ALT_USCIS account thanked Twitter and said that it would be “taking a break,” adding: “The past few days have been extremely difficult and full of anxiety. Thank you again America!”

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron

Dell Cameron was a reporter at the Daily Dot who covered security and politics. In 2015, he revealed the existence of an American hacker on the U.S. government's terrorist watchlist. He is a co-author of the Sabu Files, an award-nominated investigation into the FBI's use of cyber-informants. He became a staff writer at Gizmodo in 2017.