EFF to Court: Social Media Users Have Privacy and Free Speech Interests in Their Public Information

Special thanks to legal intern Rachel Sommers, who was the lead author of this post.

Visa applicants to the United States are required to disclose personal information including their work, travel, and family histories. And as of May 2019, they are required to register their social media accounts with the U.S. government. According to the State Department, approximately 14.7 million people will be affected by this new policy each year.

EFF recently filed an amicus brief in Doc Society v. Pompeo, a case challenging this “Registration Requirement” under the First Amendment. The plaintiffs in the case, two U.S.-based documentary film organizations that regularly collaborate with non-U.S. filmmakers and other international partners, argue that the Registration Requirement violates the expressive and associational rights of both their non-U.S.-based and U.S.-based members and partners. After the government filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, we filed our brief in district court in support of the plaintiffs’ opposition to dismissal. 

In our brief, we argue that the Registration Requirement invades privacy and chills free speech and association of both visa applicants and those in their social networks, including U.S. persons, despite the fact that the policy targets only publicly available information. This is amplified by the staggering number of social media users affected and the vast amounts of personal information they publicly share—both intentionally and unintentionally—on their social media accounts.

Social media profiles paint alarmingly detailed pictures of their users’ personal lives. By monitoring applicants’ social media profiles, the government can obtain information that it otherwise would not have access to through the visa application process. For example, visa applicants are not required to disclose their political views. However, applicants might choose to post their beliefs on their social media profiles. Those seeking to conceal such information might still be exposed by comments and tags made by other users. And due to the complex interactions of social media networks, studies have shown that personal information about users such as sexual orientation can reliably be inferred even when the user doesn’t expressly share that information. Although consular officers might be instructed to ignore this information, it is not unreasonable to fear that it might influence their decisions anyway.

Just as other users’ online activity can reveal information about visa applicants, so too can visa applicants’ online activity reveal information about other users, including U.S. persons. For example, if a visa applicant tags another user in a political rant or posts photographs of themselves and the other user at a political rally, government officials might correctly infer that the other user shares the applicant’s political beliefs. In fact, one study demonstrated that it is possible to accurately predict personal information about those who do not use any form of social media based solely on personal information and contact lists shared by those who do. The government’s surveillance of visa applicants’ social media profiles thus facilitates the surveillance of millions—if not billions—more people.

Because social media users have privacy interests in their public social media profiles, government surveillance of digital content risks chilling free speech. If visa applicants know that the government can glean vast amounts of personal information about them from their profiles—or that their anonymous or pseudonymous accounts can be linked to their real-world identities—they will be inclined to engage in self-censorship. Many will likely curtail or alter their behavior online—or even disengage from social media altogether. Importantly, because of the interconnected nature of social media, these chilling effects extend to those in visa applicants’ social networks, including U.S. persons.

Studies confirm these chilling effects. Citizen Lab found that 62 percent of survey respondents would be less likely to “speak or write about certain topics online” if they knew that the government was engaged in online surveillance. A Pew Research Center survey found that 34 percent of its survey respondents who were aware of the online surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden had taken at least one step to shield their information from the government, including using social media less often, uninstalling certain apps, and avoiding the use of certain terms in their digital communications.

One might be tempted to argue that concerned applicants can simply set their accounts to private. Some users choose to share their personal information—including their names, locations, photographs, relationships, interests, and opinions—with the public writ large. But others do so unintentionally. Given the difficulties associated with navigating privacy settings within and across platforms and the fact that privacy settings often change without warning, there is good reason to believe that many users publicly share more personal information than they think they do. Moreover, some applicants might fear that setting their accounts to private will negatively impact their applications. Others—especially those using social media anonymously or pseudonymously—might be loath to maximize their privacy settings because they use their platforms with the specific intention of reaching large audiences.

These chilling effects are further strengthened by the broad scope of the Registration Requirement, which allows the government to continue surveilling applicants’ social media profiles once the application process is over. Personal information obtained from those profiles can also be collected and stored in government databases for decades. And that information can be shared with other domestic and foreign governmental entities, as well as current and prospective employers and other third parties. It is no wonder, then, that social media users might severely limit or change the way they use social media.

Secrecy should not be a prerequisite for privacy—and the review and collection by the government of personal information that is clearly outside the scope of the visa application process creates unwarranted chilling effects on both visa applicants and their social media associates, including U.S. persons. We hope that the D.C. district court denies the government’s motion to dismiss the case and ultimately strikes down the Registration Requirement as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

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Author: Sophia Cope

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