A District of Columbia Superior Court judge issued a ruling Thursday (August 24) regarding the Department of Justice seeking private information on DisruptJ20.org visitors. The court ordered the Los Angeles-based tech company DreamHost to provide email addresses and other computer information from people who visited the anti-Trump website in the months leading to Inauguration Day. Civil liberties groups have expressed grave concerns about the First Amendment implications of the case.
A judge had already approved a warrant for the DoJ to search records related to DisruptJ20, the website used to organize protests of President Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20. The information sought by federal prosecutors included the IP addresses, emails and other information. However, the web hosting company DreamHost, which holds the records, disputed the government’s request, calling it overly broad-ranging and saying it threatens privacy and free speech.
The company sustained the objections to the warrant in court Thursday even after prosecutors had withdrawn from their unusually large-scale request for data on every visit to the protest website since it was set up in November. The IP addresses were removed from the original search request, along with unpublished drafts, images, HTTP requests, error logs and metadata.
However, Raymond Aghaian, who represented DreamHost in court Thursday, highlighted the fact that the warrant still asks for content from all email accounts on the DisruptJ20.org domain. He claimed that the narrowed request was still too broad because it could capture information on people who had nothing to do with the riots.
“When it comes to sensitive First Amendment issues such as this one, it should not be the case where the government gets to rummage through material to determine whether something is valid or not,” Aghaian said.
Prosecutor John Borchert assured that the government “is mindful of the First Amendment.”
At Thursday’s hearing a DC Superior Court judge Robert Morin said he had to balance two legitimate interests — free speech and requisites for law enforcement — and ultimately ruled for a two-step warrant process with additional safeguards.
The judge ordered DreamHost to turn over the website information to the court and said he would maintain the data until the company decides about its appeal. The court will supervise how the data is searched, DreamHost said in a blog post.
The judge also ruled that the government must report on how they plan to review the data, identify those included in the process and explain how they will avoid collecting protected information about “innocent visitors” to the website. The order restricts the time frame for which data will be reviewed.
Further, the DoJ will have to give the court one set of data not covered by the warrant that will be sealed and not reviewed thereafter and a second set of data with the reasoning behind why it’s evidence of a crime.
Lawyers for DreamHost told reporters following the opening hearing that they would review the transcript and make a decision whether to appeal in the near future. Chris Ghazarian, general counsel for DreamHost, said: “We are happy that they decided to retract a lot of the problematic requests, but there still are quite a few issues.”
Meanwhile, human rights groups have expressed concern about the situation. Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he was “deeply uncomfortable with DOJ rifling through a bunch of First Amendment-protected communications.”
Sixty human rights groups and other organizations sent a letter to Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions on Thursday to express their concerns about the search warrant demand and the precedent it sets. The letter says: “Americans have a right to seek information without fear of surveillance; they have a right to privacy; they have a right to dissent; and they have a right to petition their government without fear of persecution.”
One of the reasons why NordVPN started offering its privacy service in the first place was the sense of the Internet freedom being constantly eroded. Cases like these set a dangerous precedent, which may eventually lead to people thinking twice about visiting any website that may potentially be seen as undesirable by the government. That’s the opposite of freedom of speech and the right to dissent, and it can’t be a positive sign for the American democracy.