In this episode of The First Five, ACLU attorney Esha Bhandari talks about representing the anonymous Twitter user behind a “rogue” Twitter account critical of the Trump administration, and shares her thoughts about why the right to speak anonymously is so important — and how technology and social media have changed how we use it.
In January 2017, the Department of the Interior was forced to suspend all of its official Twitter accounts because one of its accounts posted a photo unfavorably comparing the crowd size at President Trump’s inauguration to the crowd size at President Obama’s. In the days that followed, several “rogue” government agency Twitter accounts emerged.These aren’t accounts pretending official government Twitter accounts so much as responses to the official government Twitter accounts. They have names like AltEPA, which posts facts of about climate change–something that the real EPA’s twitter account doesn’t do under the new Administration. Or altUSCIS, the alternative twitter account for U.S. citizenship and immigration services, which posts criticism of Trump administration’s immigration policies and unflattering facts about the agency itself.
The people who run these accounts have chosen to remain anonymous. But in April of this year, the Department of Homeland security demanded that Twitter give them information to unmask the true identity of the person or persons behind the altUSCIS account.Twitter refused and filed a lawsuit, saying that this was a violation of Twitter’s First Amendment rights, and the First Amendment rights of the anonymous poster. They informed the anonymous poster, who got legal representation from the ACLU. And–happy ending for freedom of speech–the Department of Homeland Security backed down.
But this incident drives home how anonymous speech may be at risk in a world where Twitter and Facebook hold so much identifying information about us–information that the government may continue to seek.
Lata Nott talks to Esha Bandhari, an attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project who represented the anonymous poster behind altUSCIS. Esha shares her thoughts about why the right to speak anonymously is so important–and how technology and social media have changed how we use it.
Lata Nott is the Executive Director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute.
Esha Bhandari is a staff attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, where she focuses on litigation and advocacy relating to online speech, academic freedom, privacy rights, and the impact of big data.
To learn about what “rogue” Twitter accounts exist, check out the Alt and Rogue List.
To learn more about Twitter’s response to the government’s attempt to unmask the anonymous Tweeter behind altUSCIS, you can read the Twitter v. Department of Homeland Security Complaint.