SAN FRANCISCO — Twitter sued the federal government on Thursday to block the unmasking of an anonymous account that had been posting critical messages about the Trump administration, setting up a clash over digital privacy.
The social media company disclosed in a federal court filing that it had a received a summons to reveal the identity of a Twitter account with the handle @ALT_USCIS, which was one of several so-called rogue Twitter accounts run by people claiming to be dissident current or former employees of the federal government. The account in question frequently criticized the Trump administration’s immigration policies and enforcement.
In its filing, Twitter said it could not be compelled to disclose the account holder’s identity. The company argued that the government’s request and reasoning were unlawful, and that uncovering the identity of the user would have “a grave chilling effect” on the speech of the many “alt-accounts” that voice resistance to government policies.
“A time-honored tradition of pseudonymous free speech on matters of public moment runs deep in the political life of America,” Twitter said in the court filing. “These First Amendment interests are at their zenith when, as here, the speech at issue touches on matters of public political life.”
Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman at the Department of Homeland Security, which along with Customs and Border Protection had issued the summons to Twitter, declined to comment.
Twitter’s suit sets up a confrontation between the Trump administration and the technology company over digital privacy, a thorny issue that has driven a wedge between industry and government in the past. Administrations have previously sought the valuable digital information held by Facebook, Google and Twitter, among others, in what some of these companies have said is an overreach of government power. Federal officials have said they need the data for national security or other reasons.
Last year, Apple pushed back against the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a highly contentious case over privacy and national security. The F.B.I. asked Apple to unlock the iPhone that had been used by a gunman in an attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015. Apple refused, citing the privacy concerns of its users and the precedent it set for future cases. The F.B.I. dropped the case after finding another way to open the iPhone without Apple’s aid.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it plans to represent the anonymous user or users behind the @ALT_USCIS account.
“To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, an A.C.L.U. attorney involved in the case. “But in this case the government has given no reason at all, leading to concerns that it is simply trying to stifle dissent.”