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Why Twitter Suing the U.S. Government Is a Big Deal

Ryan McQueeney

In response to the Trump administration’s attempts to unmask an account that is critical of the president, Twitter TWTR filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on Thursday. The social media platform is apparently willing to go up against the feds in court in order to protect its users’ privacy.

The account in question goes by the handle @ALT_uscis, which is short for “Alternative U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.” There is no clear evidence that the user or users behind the account are actually employees of this agency, and it is just one of a number of “alternative” government-related accounts that have popped up in protest to the Trump administration.

These accounts often present themselves as rogue government employees or administration insiders that are attempting to publicize internal frustrations with the president’s policies. For the average Twitter user, there is simply no way to prove if this is true or not, but the government sure would like to find out.

According to Twitter’s lawsuit, an agent of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) faxed a summons to the social media company last month requesting the account’s personal details, including its login, phone number, and IP address.

So why does any of this matter?

Well, if Twitter were forced to give up the account’s information, it could set a precedent that would certainly concern even the most optimistic internet privacy advocates. 

As the company states in its guide for law enforcement officials, Twitter will provide account information only if by way of a "subpoena, court order, or other valid legal process."

This case could have implications for the privacy of every American, and it is rooted in a debate about the extent to which the government needs to know about its citizen private lives.

But that’s not the only thing at stake here.

For Twitter users, a key function of the site is being called into question here. Twitter has never required its users to publicly present their real selves, and a vast number of people opt to remain anonymous. If a request from the government is all it takes to overturn this anonymity, wouldn’t one of Twitter’s main appeals be pretty irrelevant?

And on a less-serious side note, I really hope this doesn’t threaten the number of comedic parody accounts on Twitter. They help make Twitter fun.

Overall, the lawsuit proves that Twitter is willing to stand up to even the most powerful of legal opponents on behalf of its users. The case is reminiscent of Apple’s AAPL refusal to create a “backdoor” operating system that would the FBI to hack the phone of a terrorist implicated in 2015’s infamous San Bernardino shooting.

The gravity of that legal action was a bit larger, but proponents of digital privacy will argue that the internet freedom is contingent on companies like Twitter and Apple sticking up for its users.

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