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Twitter, Reddit challenge US rules forcing visa applicants to disclose their social media handles

SAN YSIDRO, CA - SEPTEMBER 23: A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer checks identifications as people cross into the United States from Mexico on September 23, 2016 in San Ysidro, California. More than 10,000 people legally cross the border, mostly for work, at San Ysidro daily, making it the busiest port of entry on the 2,000 mile border between the United States and Mexico. Securing the border and controlling illegal immigration have become key issues in the U.S. Presidential campaign. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Twitter and Reddit have filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit challenging a U.S. government rule change compelling visa applicants to disclose their social media handles.

The lawsuit, brought by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Brennan Center for Justice, and law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, seeks to undo both the State Department’s requirement that visa applicants must disclose their social media handles prior to obtaining a U.S. visa, as well as related rules over the retention and dissemination of those records.

Last year, the State Department began asking visa applicants for their current and former social media usernames, a move that affects millions non-citizens applying to travel to the United States each year. The rule change was part of the Trump administration’s effort to expand its “enhanced” screening protocols. At the time, it was reported that the information would be used if the State Department determines that “such information is required to confirm identity or conduct more rigorous national security vetting.”

In a filing supporting the lawsuit, both Twitter and Reddit said the social media policies “unquestionably chill a vast quantity of speech” and that the rules violate the First Amendment rights “to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

Twitter and Reddit, which collectively have more than 560 million users, said their users — many of which don’t use their real names on their platforms — are forced to “surrender their anonymity in order to travel to the United States,” which “violates the First Amendment rights to speak anonymously and associate privately.”

“Twitter and Reddit vigorously guard the right to speak anonymously for people on their platforms, and anonymous individuals correspondingly communicate on these platforms with the expectation that their identities will not be revealed without a specific showing of compelling need,” the brief said.

“That expectation allows the free exchange of ideas to flourish on these platforms.”

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s policy chief for the Americas, said the social media rule “infringes both of those rights and we are proud to lend our support on these critical legal issues.” Reddit’s general counsel Ben Lee called the rule a “intrusive overreach” by the government.

It’s not known how many, if any, visa applicants have been denied a visa because of their social media content. But since the social media rule went into effect, cases emerged of approved visa holders denied entry to the U.S. for other people’s social media postings. Ismail Ajjawi, a then 17-year-old freshman at Harvard University, was turned away at Boston Logan International Airport after U.S. border officials searched his phone after taking issue with social media postings of Ajjawi’s friends — and not his own.

Abed Ayoub, legal and policy director at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told TechCrunch at the time that Ajjawi’s case was not isolated. A week later, TechCrunch learned of another man who was denied entry to the U.S. because of a WhatsApp message sent by a distant acquaintance.

A spokesperson for the State Department did not immediately comment on news of the amicus brief.

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