ACLU Fights DOJ Request for Anti-Trump Facebook Users’ Info

A man takes a selfie on the hood of a destroyed limousine during an Inauguration Day protest in Washington, D.C. The Department of Justice is attempting to obtain personal information on protest organizers from online sources. (Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

After more than 200 people were indicted for violating Washington, D.C.’s, felony rioting statute at protests during Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Justice demanded in three search warrants that Facebook hand over the names and personal information of over 6,000 users who “liked” an anti-Trump Facebook page connected to inauguration protests. On Thursday, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it is challenging DOJ’s demands for Facebook to give up its users’ information, filing a suit with the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

The ACLU statement reads:

“Although the warrants claim to seek only evidence in support of the government’s prosecutions of January 20 demonstrations, they demand—among other things—all private messages, friend lists, status updates, comments, photos, video, and other private information solely intended for the users’ Facebook friends and family, even if they have nothing to do with Inauguration Day. The warrants also seek information about actions taken on Facebook, including all searches performed by the users, groups or networks joined, and all “data and information that has been deleted by the user.”

The ACLU is representing Emmelia Talarico, one of the three users who runs the DisruptJ20 Facebook page—the warrant would give the Department of Justice 90 days to go through the DisruptJ20 website and have access to users who liked, interacted with the page, or RSVP’d to protests. None of the three users was charged with an inauguration-related crime.

“Opening up the entire contents of a personal Facebook page for review by the government is a gross invasion of privacy,” Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at ACLU-DC, said in a written statement. “Moreover, when law enforcement officers can comb through records concerning political organizing in opposition to the very administration for which those officers work, the result is the chilling of First Amendment-protected political activity.”

National Law Journal states:

It’s not the first court challenge related to search warrants for information on the protestors or the Disruptj20 website. Facebook, represented by Perkins Coie partner John Roche, also challenged a gag order from the government in July that barred the company from informing MacAuley, Carrefour and Talarico about the warrants. The government withdrew the gag order Sept. 13, the day before a hearing on the issue was set to be held in the D.C. Court of Appeals.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has also been in a battle over warrants with DreamHost, the web-hosting company for Disruptj20’s website. DreamHost, represented by Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton partner Ray Aghaian, went to court to block a warrant that sought, among other information, IP logs that would allow the government to see information about every website visitor. The government later modified the warrant, though Aghaian still said it raised constitutional concerns.

After a hearing in D.C. Superior Court last month, Chief Judge Robert Morin allowed the government to proceed with the modified warrant but with certain conditions that included close supervision by the court. DreamHost indicated it may appeal that order Sept. 5, though Morin heard competing proposals from Aghaian and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in a Sept. 20 hearing on how to move forward with collecting the information.

Facebook responded to the gag order, saying, “We successfully fought in court to be able to notify the three people whose broad account information was requested by the government. We are grateful to the companies and civil society organizations that supported us in arguing for people’s ability to learn about and challenge overly broad search warrants.”

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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