The legal battle between Twitter and the U.S. government ended Friday, after the Department of Homeland Security withdrew its demand that the tech company release information to identify an account holder whose tweets are critical of President Donald Trump on Twitter.
The lawsuit threatened to become a major battle over free speech between Silicon Valley and Washington. But it was over almost before it began. The tech company had filed a lawsuit Thursday to protest the order, saying that it violated the user’s First Amendment right to free expression. But Twitter dropped its suit Friday, saying in a court filing that “[because] the summons has now been withdrawn, Twitter voluntary dismisses without prejudice all claims.”
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Twitter filed the suit to protect the identity of a user who runs the @ALT_uscis feed — an account that purports to tweet the thoughts of a federal worker from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The two-month-old account is often critical of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, particularly its plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico and its immigration travel ban.
Legal experts said that Twitter would have had a strong case had it gone to court, as the government had not provided compelling information on why it was necessary to identify the critic.
The government, in order to enforce its subpoena, would have had to demonstrate that whoever is behind the Twitter account was likely violating some law. There also were serious questions about whether the type of subpoena used, which is typically for investigating violations of export rules, was appropriate for the type of case DHS was probing, experts said.
Courts also have traditionally given a high degree or protection to political speech, including the right to speak anonymously or with a pseudonym. That includes, in many circumstances, government employees who are critical of the agencies for which they work.
“This is just, as best as I can tell, the government trying to figure out who is expressing criticisms, and that is chilling,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
If the goal was to quiet the dissent, it seems to have failed. The number of followers for the Twitter account grew from “over 32,000” to more than 150,000 in less than 24 hours.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on Thursday called the government’s attempt to unmask the identity of the Twitter user a “witch hunt.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the user, celebrated its quick victory. One of ACLU’s attorneys said in a statement that the speed with which the government withdrew the request shows how problematic its demand was.
“Speaking anonymously about issues of the day is a longstanding American tradition, dating back to when the framers of the Constitution wrote under pseudonyms,” said Esha Bhandari, one of the attorneys. “The anonymity that the First Amendment guarantees is often most essential when people criticize the government, and this free speech right is as important today as ever.”
The person behind @ALT_uscis did not respond to a request for comment sent over Twitter. But the user did thank Twitter and the ACLU, tweeting:
We want to thank @twitter and @aclu for standing up for the right of free anonymous speech. Thank you resistance for standing up for us.