Two documentary film organizations, Doc Society, based in Brooklyn, and the International Documentary Association, based in Los Angeles, have filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration last Thursday over a new US visa rule which required from applicants to submit their social media details when submitting an application.

The lawsuit which was jointly developed by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law representing the two documentary film companies, which host conferences and workshops that bring foreign filmmakers and social activists to American soil, sued Trump Administration over is social media details requirement for visa applicants, raising  novel issues about privacy and surveillance in the social-media era.

According to the lawsuit, the new rule would force people from authoritarian countries to disclose their pseudonyms which they use to discuss politically sensitive matters that could endanger them by creating a risk that the information gets back to their own governments.

Many people use pseudonyms on social media so that they can speak anonymously about sensitive or controversial issues, and so that they can shield themselves or their families or associates from possible reprisals by state or private actors,” the lawsuit reads.

Carrie DeCell, a lawyer representing both firms on their lawsuit, also believes that the new State Department requirement drastically limits speech on social media, in particular of people living in authoritarian countries.

DeCell highlights that among other reasons why the requirement of social media details should be abolished is that it is not an effective vetting tool, and she says the Department of Homeland Security is the one that has come to such conculsions through a study.

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general concluded that those studies actually failed to provide that evidence. So even if the government may have legitimate interests in vetting individuals who are trying to come to the United States, this particular form of surveillance has actually not been shown to be an effective tool,” she explains.

The complaint has been filed in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia. It challenges the State Department as an administrator of visa applications, and the Department of Homeland Security, which according to the lawsuit “uses visa application data for other purposes, including administering immigration law.”

As of June, this year, travelers in need of a US visa had to submit a list of the social media they use and the name of their accounts in each, as a part of their US visa application. Among the social media platforms required are also US-based entities such as Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit and YouTube.

The measure was taken as a part of the ‘extreme vetting’ that the US State Department wants to start applying, which has also been one of the biggest electoral promises of President Trump as a way to combat terrorism.

In fact, the requirement had started to apply to some particular categories of travelers since 2016, during the Obama presidency, after the shootings in 2015 in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 people dead. Since then, it is estimated that around 65 thousand people per year are required to submit such information, including travelers that have previously traveled to areas controlled by terrorist organizations.

The new measure will affect around 15 million people per year, both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants. Exempt from this requirement may be only certain state officials and diplomats.


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