Twitter and Reddit are supporting a lawsuit that seeks to stop the Trump administration from forcing visa applicants to disclose their social media handles to the US government.
“The Registration Requirement and its accompanying retention and dissemination policies unquestionably chill a vast quantity of speech,” the two companies wrote in an amicus curiae brief on Thursday supporting the lawsuit.
Since last year, the US has been requiring visa applicants to submit their user IDs for their social media accounts, or risk application denial. The intent is to better screen the background of foreign nationals seeking to enter the country. But in December, two US-based documentary film organizations filed a lawsuit against the requirement, claiming it violates the First Amendment by suppressing free speech.
Reddit and Twitter agree. In the amicus curiae brief, the two companies joined with the trade group, the Internet Association — which represents the top web companies — to weigh in on the lawsuit as it proceeds in court.
For them, one of the main problems with the requirement is how it forces foreign nationals to give up their social media handles for even pseudonymous accounts. “The Registration Requirement requires [foreign nationals] to surrender their anonymity in order to travel to the United States,” the companies wrote. “And in doing so, the requirement violates the First Amendment rights to speak anonymously and associate privately.”
Both companies also oppose how the requirement applies to foreign nationals who currently live or have lived in the US, but need to renew their visas. “Knowing that the government has retained their social-media identifiers and may use their online activity to assess whether they may remain in the country, many individuals will choose to curtail their speech now and in the future,” they wrote.
The other issue is how under US law the State Department has the right to share the submitted social media handles with a foreign government if it seeks to prosecute a crime against the visa applicant. Reddit and Twitter fear the same mechanism could be exploited by foreign authorities to unmask anonymous users critical of their regimes.
“Inadequate protection for online anonymous speech would dissuade countless speakers from using services such as Twitter, Reddit, and those run by other members of the Internet Association,” the amicus curiae brief goes on to add.
The US State Department declined to comment on the companies’ amicus curiae brief. But in the past, federal authorities have said immigration officers cannot deny a visa based on the applicants’ religion, political views or sexual orientation. A State Department FAQ document also says information collected on visa applications are confidential and will be securely kept.