SAN FRANCISCO — How much trouble can you get into for turning off the President's Twitter account?
Probably not much, say experts.
President Trump's Twitter account was deactivated for 11 minutes on Thursday "due to human error by a Twitter employee," according to the social media company.
Opinions vary on just what recourse, if any, the president might have for the outage, which sparked a flurry of tweets while the account was down and once it was restored.
My Twitter account was taken down for 11 minutes by a rogue employee. I guess the word must finally be getting out-and having an impact.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 3, 2017
Very little is known about the person who did it, beyond that it was his or her last day of work. There have been reports that it might have been a contract worker rather than a full-time staffer at the San Francisco company.
There’s not a lot President Trump could do legally to the person, because they weren't on the president's computer system, said Chris Calabrese, vice president for policy at the non-profit Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington D.C.
Trump would also have a hard time making a case against Twitter because, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, if a company makes a good faith effort to moderate the content on its site it’s immune from liability.
“Twitter jumped in in just 11 minutes and restored the account, so it’s a pretty strong indication that it was acting in good faith,” said Calabrese.
It would have to be a U.S. Attorney who would make a decision about whether to prosecute, possibly after doing fact gathering before a grand jury, said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights group.
“Though it's true the president has certainly been making statements this week about what he thinks U.S. Attorneys should do,” Opsahl said, in an allusion to Trump’s tweets Wednesday that Sayfullo Saipov, the alleged perpetrator of the deadly car attack in New York City, should be given the death penalty.
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Whether a U.S. Attorney even could bring charges against the person who disabled the account depends in part on what Twitter had hired the person to do, said Opsahl.
Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, there would be a distinction between an employee who is authorized to remove accounts and one who had an entirely different job at Twitter who internally hacked its system in order to disable the account.
An additional murky area: There’s no legal agreement on just what unauthorized access means, said Nick Akerman, an expert on the Comptuer Fraud and Abuse Act at Dorsey & Whitney in New York City.
In some parts of the country, an employee who is granted access to a computer for work can’t be prosecuted for unauthorized access to that system, no matter what he or she did.
“So if he did this in California, he probably couldn’t get prosecuted,” said Akerman.
However, other courts, such as the 5th Circuit in Texas, take a broader view.
“If he went into the computer and went against company policy in deleting the account, then he could be prosecuted,” said Ackerman. "It could be a federal crime."
Most of the time, the biggest stick that employers have to keep employees in line is the threat of firing them if they go against company policy. Because the incident happened on the employee’s last day, that clearly wasn’t an option.
Blacklisting them so they couldn’t get another job is also a possibility, but in the case of a contract worker, for whom it’s likely not a career, it’s not a very effective threat.
"We really just don't know enough about the person to know," said Opsahl. "But this does suggest that Twitter might want to review their policies and procedures for account removal."
Twitter said in a tweet Friday that it's taking steps to prevent this from happening in the future. It provided no details of the new measures.
Update: We have implemented safeguards to prevent this from happening again. We won’t be able to share all details about our internal investigation or updates to our security measures, but we take this seriously and our teams are on it. https://t.co/8EfEzHvB7p— Twitter Government (@TwitterGov) November 3, 2017