▍Beware of Posting on Social Media! US Federal Government Demands Twitter to Unmask Account

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“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

-Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The concept of freedom of speech has sprouted up in citizens’ and social consciousness since 500 BC. [annotation 1] As the 17th century took off, more and more official documents have been explicitly defining freedom of speech. The Article 19 in Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed in 1984 by United Nations (UN), for instance, depicts the meaning of freedom in which citizens shall be privileged to dissimilate opinion and expression. Nowadays, such proposition is considered the best proof to realizing freedom of speech.

The mysteriously compromised Twitter account

The convenience that these prevailing social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, brought along actually made the spread of words more effective. Nonetheless, does it mean that the freedom of speech could become boundless, or become the Aunt Sally of challenging national security? According to press, American President Trump is a real Twitter user who has been tweeting more than 34,000 since his registration in social media in March of 2009; yet, the appalling tweets Trump usually made resulted in a wave of criticism in society and media, even the well-known enterprises “commented” their views on Trump as well.

This March, after MacDonald’s tweeted a message insulting President Trump, its corporate account was compromised and the tweet was later removed. [annotation 2] Although the spokesman of Twitter refused to disclose further about the incident, it still stirred up the curiosity of wondering the reasons behind, no matter who the hacker was, implying more scrutiny and challenge that speech in public might confront would be in near future.

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Photo Credit: Zero Hedge

Strict scrutiny on social media by German government

The German government said in March 14 that social media giants including Twitter and Facebook were required to curb hate speech on platform for message scrutiny more than before; otherwise, the companies could be fined up to $53 million for not strengthening the restriction. [annotation 3] Despite the truth that Germany regulates freedom of speech in constitution, it is in fact a country that holds stringent laws regarding speech and publication. Any forms of speech to promote Nazi ideology and deny the Holocaust are illegal.

Besides Germany, lawmakers in Europe, the United States and elsewhere were considering that social media were obliged to prevent hate speech and slander from showing up on their own platforms. By doing so, the tide of scrutiny seemed to ask global users for discreet diction on social media without hostility, for fear being blocked or deleted; on the other hand, the tide also provided authorities more footholds as controlling and interfering internet speech in name of national security.

US federal government demands Twitter to unmask account

Surprisingly, the US federal government issued a summons ordering Twitter to unmask the account information right after the anonymous account @ALT_USCIS posted a tweet criticizing Trump administration [annotation 4]. Twitter, however, viewed this move as illegal and unreasonable to lay bare account information to authority. Therefore, it sued the US federal government in this April to block unmasking the account. If Twitter were to comply with, it then would help set up a chilling precedent for the government. As long as there was another request for unmasking anti-Trump account in days to come, it would be as easy as a piece of cake for governments to secure personal information.

“A time-honored tradition of pseudonymous free speech on matters of public moment runs deep in the political life of America,” Twitter said in its filing for court. “These First Amendment [annotation 5] interests are at their zenith when, as here, the speech at issue touches on matters of public political life.” The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) even planned to represent the anonymous user behind @ALT_USCIS. “To unmask an anonymous speaker online, the government must have a strong justification,” said one of the A.C.L.U. attorneys 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.”

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Photo Credit: Pixabay

Yet, according to latest news, the federal government had blinked to withdraw the summons one day after Twitter sued. This event, thus, drove a wedge between American authority and tech companies over speech issue. One attempted to secure privacy via judicial summons, and the other chose to stick to speech principles instead of caving in to government. As for the primary factor of conflict, take USA for instance, increasing speech of anti-Trump forced the government to scrutinize words repeatedly, and also forbade staff of federal agencies to speak out in social media. Those former or current government employees who did not concede then stepped forward to create anonymous accounts, such as @ALT_Labor or @BadLandsNPS, whose critical tweets over Trump had drawn thousands of hundreds of followers less than a week after Trump’s inauguration.

“It doesn’t mean that the internet will no longer be a free space,” as Birgit Stark, head of the institute for communications at the University of Mainz, said, “You can’t just defame people, just because it is the internet.” The rise of social media allows people to swiftly share and communicate their opinions freely on social issues. However, defaming or hating others arbitrarily in public under the guise of freedom of speech seems to surpass the rights that freedom originally tends to cover; also, scrutinizing speech through state power should bear plentiful justification in order not to fall down as nation’s means of manipulation.

The freedom of speech could arguably be viewed as one of greatest assets in humans’ history. We all, perhaps, need to choose our languages in epoch of social media more wisely and adroitly to preserve this given freedom.

[annotation 1] In ancient Greek age, Athens city arguably symbolized the earliest birthplace for freedom. In facing with military and economic encroachment from outsiders, citizens held the ecclesia 40 times a year, in which citizens were formally allowed to speak up equally and vote by ballot. This kind of assembly not only became the prototype of modern democratic politics, but the origin of citizens’ participation in public expression.

[annotation 2] The tweet read, “@realDonaldTrump you are actually a disgusting excuse of a President and we would love to have @BarackObama back, also you have tiny hands.”

[annotation 3] Heiko Maas, Germany’s minister of justice and consumer protection, proposed that social media companies could face stiff fines if they failed to swiftly remove illegal speech on platform. Maas thought by pressing social media websites, the proposal would make enterprises know better how to deal with hate speech inside their websites.

[annotation 4] USCIS stands for US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The account was run by former or current federal employees, frequently criticizing Trump’s immigration policies and enforcement actions. After federal government withdrew their request to unmask the account, @ALT_USCIS tweeted that they decided to take a break and recharged from the difficulty and anxiety this event came with.

[annotation 5] This amendment belonged to part of bills of rights, passed on 15 December, 1791, which verified the separation of church and state, free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, press, petition and assembly. In late 20th century, the supreme court also ruled that the amendment implicitly covered freedom of association.

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