Trump administration sued for requiring foreigners to disclose social media accounts

Trump administration sued for requiring foreigners to disclose social media accounts
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The Trump administration was sued on Thursday over a controversial new policy requiring foreigners to share their social media accounts when they apply for U.S. visas. 

The lawsuit, filed by civil liberties advocates representing two U.S.-based documentary filmmaking groups, alleges the administration is violating constitutional free speech rights and stripping away any semblance of online privacy in the name of vetting new entrants to the country, some of which already have strong ties to the U.S. 

The plaintiffs are alleging the rule, which requires visa applicants to submit their social media handles across 20 online services to the U.S. government, has created a "far-reaching digital surveillance regime that enables the U.S. government to monitor visa applicants’ constitutionally protected speech and associations not just at the time they apply for visas, but even after they enter the United States." 

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Free speech advocates filed the lawsuit on behalf of two documentary filmmaking groups, Doc Society and the International Documentary Association (IDA), which have close ties to documentarians and journalists in other countries. Doc Society and the IDA say their partners in other countries are no longer willing to share their opinions or sensitive information online, for fear that "a U.S. official will misinterpret their speech on social media." 

The State Department first announced the new rule in 2018 and it went into effect earlier this year, raising a litany of concerns around whether the government should be allowed to collect social media information as it vets potential new entrants to the country. 

Under the rule, most visa applicants, including temporary visitors, are required to list their social media identifiers in a drop down menu along with other personal information. Officials have said it's part of a broader policy of "extreme vetting." 

The lawsuit is challenging the State Department, which introduced the rule, as well as the Department of Homeland Security, which retains the information. Other government agencies also have access to U.S. visa application information after it's been submitted.  

Many partners and members of the Doc Society and IDA post information under false names or aliases online on order to share political and sometimes controversial opinions in countries where there are few free speech rights and a high cost to speaking out against the government.

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Now, the lawsuit claims, many of those people are no longer posting to their pseudonymous accounts, quashing their ability to share vital information that authoritarian governments may try to repress.

"Some of Plaintiffs’ members and partners now use social media more cautiously, use it less, or no longer use it at all for speech that could be construed as controversial or political," the lawsuit reads.  

The social media rule applies to foreigners applying for visas, people who are not protected by the Constitution. But the lawsuit is alleging the government violated the First Amendment by limiting "anonymous speech and private expressive association" and violated the Administrative Procedure Act by creating rules that go beyond the State Department's authority. 

"The Department does not comment on pending litigation," a State Department spokesperson said.