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Justice Department Demands Details on Visitors to Anti-Trump Website

A sticker advertising www.disruptj20.org in Washington, D.C., in January. (Elvert Barnes / CC 2.0)

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is demanding details on visitors to an anti-Trump protest website in what consumer advocates are calling an “unconstitutional” invasion of privacy.

The Guardian reports:

On 17 July, the DoJ served a website-hosting company, DreamHost, with a search warrant for every piece of information it possessed that was related to a website that was used to coordinate protests during Donald Trump’s inauguration. The warrant covers the people who own and operate the site, but also seeks to get the IP addresses of 1.3 million people who visited it, as well as the date and time of their visit and information about what browser or operating system they used.

The website, www.disruptj20.org, was used to coordinate protests and civil disobedience on 20 January, when Trump was inaugurated.

“This specific case and this specific warrant are pure prosecutorial overreach by a highly politicized department of justice under [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions,” said Chris Ghazarian, general counsel for DreamHost. “You should be concerned that anyone should be targeted simply for visiting a website.”

The warrant was made public Monday, when DreamHost announced its plans to challenge the government in court. The DoJ declined to comment.

DreamHost expanded on its concerns regarding the warrant in a blog post, writing:

Chris Ghazarian, our General Counsel, has taken issue with this particular search warrant for being a highly untargeted demand that chills free association and the right of free speech afforded by the Constitution. …

The request from the DOJ demands that DreamHost hand over 1.3 million visitor IP addresses — in addition to contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people — in an effort to determine who simply visited the website. (Our customer has also been notified of the pending warrant on the account.)

That information could be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind.

This is, in our opinion, a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit dedicated to defending online free speech and privacy rights, labeled the warrant “unconstitutional.”

“I can’t conceive of a legitimate justification other than casting your net as broadly as possible to justify millions of user logs,” EFF senior staff attorney Mark Rumold told The Guardian. “This [the website] is pure First Amendment advocacy – the type of advocacy the First Amendment was designed to protect and promote.”

In a blog post published Monday, the EFF expanded on the privacy concerns at stake in the case:

No plausible explanation exists for a search warrant of this breadth, other than to cast a digital dragnet as broadly as possible. But the Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit fishing expeditions like this. Those concerns are especially relevant here, where DOJ is investigating a website that served as a hub for the planning and exercise of First Amendment-protected activities.

EFF notes that it will continue to monitor the case. DreamHost adds in its blog post that it has “been working closely with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and their counsel throughout this process,” but notes “the EFF is not representing us in this case, [but] they understand our arguments and have been lending professional support.”

A court hearing on DreamHost’s challenge to the warrant will be held this Friday in Washington, D.C.

Emma Niles
Assistant Editor
Emma Niles, an assistant editor at Truthdig, graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in political science. She has worked for the National Women’s Law Center and Ms. Magazine.…
Emma Niles

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