Twitter, Reddit Blast Social Media Disclosure Rules for Visa Applicants

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

(CN) — Twitter, Reddit and a lobbying group for internet companies are supporting filmmakers in a lawsuit challenging a policy that requires visa applicants to register their social media handles with the U.S. government.

The social media companies and the Internet Association filed an amicus brief on Thursday arguing that the State Department’s rule requiring visa applicants to disclose their online identifiers creates a chilling effect on speech and dissuades users from freely expressing their opinions on social media. 

“Twitter’s and Reddit’s services support online communities that are modern-day equivalents of the public square, where individuals come together to learn and share the information that shapes their daily lives. Every day, people across the country and the globe use these services to engage in speech protected by the First Amendment,” the brief states. 

Last year, the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Brennan Center for Justice and lawyers with Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of Doc Society and International Documentary Association challenging the government’s policy. 

“The registration requirement violates the expressive and associational rights of visa applicants by compelling them to facilitate the government’s access to what is effectively a live database of their personal, creative, and political activities online,” the lawsuit states.  

The requirement was implemented in May 2019. The federal government requires handle disclosure for all visa applicants who used most social media sites as well as the Chinese, Russian, Belgian and Latvian platforms in the last five years.

The filmmakers who brought the suit say they have a particular interest in contesting the rule, since it has had a chilling effect on speech throughout the documentary film community. 

“Some visa applicants who would otherwise use social media to speak to others, and to share their views about personal or political topics, refrain from doing so or publicly share less than they otherwise would,” the complaint states.

According to Twitter and Reddit’s amicus brief in the case, the rule affects nearly 14.7 million visa applicants each year, including those who are seeking to renew their status. It applies to the disclosure of identifying information on about 20 different social media platforms. 

“As the government fully acknowledges, that information is not only used to make determinations about applicants’ visa eligibility, but is also shared broadly to other federal-government agencies to aid them in reaching decisions on deportation and the denial of immigration benefits,” the companies wrote in the 33-page brief. 

In addition, the brief states, the information can be shared with foreign governments in certain circumstances. 

Ben Lee, Reddit’s vice president and general counsel, said the site “has held user privacy as a foundational value” since its inception.

“With this brief we intend to defend not just our users but all users who are determined to maintain their privacy on the internet from intrusive overreach by the government,” Lee said in a statement.

Jessica Herrera-Flanigan, Twitter’s vice president of public policy and philanthropy for the Americas, said in a statement that one of the company’s core values is “defending and respecting the voices of the people who use our service.”

“This value is a two-part commitment to freedom of expression and privacy. We believe the government’s policy requiring visa applicants to disclose their social media handles infringes both of those rights and we are proud to lend our support on these critical legal issues,” she said.

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