April 2017 Notes: It’s all About “Unmasking” This Month!

Twitter Crushes Unmasking Attempt. If you’ve been following the political news lately, there’s been LOTS of talk about leaks of information and the “unmasking” of the identity of U.S. citizens caught up in government surveillance of foreign spies. But the political unmasking tilt took yet another turn in early April, as the Department of Homeland Security tried to use an administrative summons to force Twitter to reveal the identity of the person behind an anonymous account. The account – @ALT_uscis – was one of many “ALT government” accounts set up after last November’s presidential election. And like many of the other accounts, @ALT_uscis regularly posts content critical of the Trump administration and the agency it spoofs – in this case, the Customs and Immigration Service. Twitter, to its credit, filed a federal lawsuit to quash the summons. After all, there is a strong first amendment protection for anonymous speech, and the use of administrative summons or subpoenas to reveal the identity of anonymous speakers – particularly when such tools are wielded by thin-skinned bureaucrats – is exceptionally threatening to full and robust public expression. Within a day the DHS withdrew the subpoena, showing that at least at some level grownups have asserted authority within the agency. But it shouldn’t have to take a lawsuit and public pressure for government agencies to respect the right of the public to criticize them.

Avvo Unmasking Follow-Up. Back in 2015, Avvo took a similar stance in response to a subpoena from an attorney seeking to unmask the identity of the anonymous author of a negative Avvo review, who the attorney believed was a non-client. That case, decided in favor of the reviewer, established the balancing standard in Washington State by which courts will determine whether to permit discovery under “unmasking subpoenas.” Now, the reviewer has come forward and identified herself, proving that she was a client of the lawyer in question, and noting that she “feels strongly about the need for a consumer to speak the truth about their experience” with an attorney.

It’s Hard to Hide Online. If any of my readers are wondering whether they can reliably stay anonymous online, here’s a fascinating cautionary tale. After FBI Director James Comey mentioned offhand that he had a “secret” Twitter account, Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg took on the challenge of tracking it down. Through some quick detective work and cross-referencing of other accounts, Feinberg zeroed in on a particular twitter account: @ProjectExile7. And by tracking the accounts @ProjectExile7 followed, and the FBI-centric tweets occasionally sent out by the account, she concluded that it was “almost certainly” Comey’s (this conclusion was bolstered by the posting of this meme by @ProjectExile7 right after Feinberg’s story ran). The takeaway? If even the FBI Director can’t stay hidden from a motivated investigator, don’t count on having better luck yourself.

Social Media News and Notes:

Lawyers continue to wring hands about reconciling ethics rules and use of social media.

“Reverse astroturfing:” $34,500 judgment in case of false negative review left for competitor.

Some surprisingly good tips for lawyers experimenting with Facebook advertising.

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