The Trump administration has demanded that Facebook turn over the content on anti-Trump demonstrators. Is this a valid attempt at uncovering reckless violence in public spaces, or is it a blatant violation of a company’s and individuals’ civil rights?
Violence at a demonstration of any kind is abhorrent, whether it’s perpetrated by the far-leftist Antifa’s or the far-right, neo-nazi, white extremists. The result is the same regardless of political persuasion – innocent people get hurt and violators should be arrested and prosecuted. However, when does official reaction cross legal lines and infringe on a person’s right to privacy?
This thorny conundrum is being considered in Washington DC where, as a result of anti-Trump demonstrations last winter, violence erupted. As a result, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has demanded Facebook turn over information about three anti-Trump activists. The DOJ, via warrants requested by US prosecutors, has specifically targeted three anti-Trump protestors. It has asked Facebook for personal information about their public postings and communications. This prompted a legal challenge by civil liberties advocates.
According to The Independent, the US prosecutors, “Citing “evidence of rioting or intent to riot,” made the sweeping requests asking Facebook to disclose all personal information of the organizers, including their passwords and physical addresses, as well as all activity associated with their accounts, any photos or videos they uploaded or any messages they sent.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) pushed back in an effort to quash the warrant requests. It pointed out the implications for future demonstrations and expressions of free speech, along with the potential to“chill future online communications.” It warned further that executing the warrants would “reach deeply into individuals’ private lives and protected associational and political activity.” Other observers worry that this would let the genie out of the bottle. This could make other types of activity unrelated to politics fair game for law enforcement – not just those relating to demonstrations run amok.
Clearly, this doesn’t appear to be a case of national security trumping (pardon the pun) individual liberties and freedom of speech. To many, this has the whiff of a vendetta by the vengeful, narcissistic Trump, who was embarrassed by the demonstrations as much as he was by the disappointing turnout for his inauguration. The timing of the warrant requests back in February, and the president’s own rhetoric, certainly support this notion.
Requesting access to data from a site like Facebook risks exposing unrelated personal information to the public, including intimate details of a person’s life, from romantic encounters to sexual preferences. Conversations with friends and family members would also be bared for all to see, the ACLU’s court filing argues. Highlighting information like this could dampen enthusiasm for any such intercommunication in the future.
Supporters of the DOJ action deny these steps are being taken out of revenge, or just because these were anti-Trump demonstrators. They believe it is a legitimate attempt to see how deep the ties are between the agitators and well-organized anarchist organizations. They feel that such organizations don’t have any affinity for one target – say Trump – but are bent on using unlawful means to tear down anything that has to do with lawful government.
Even if this were true, there is little doubt that this request for information from Facebook – and successfully executing the warrants – could give law enforcement an opening to delve further into individuals’ private lives. It wouldn’t just embolden them, it would legitimize them.