DOJ Makes Demands for User Data

DOJ Makes Demands for User Data
DOJ Makes Demands for User Data

Well-known web hosting company DreamHost is fighting a Department of Justice request for website visitor information that comes directly from the offices of President Donald J. Trump. The request stems from the fact that DreamHost is responsible for hosting the site Disrupt J20.org, an anti-Trump organization responsible for protests against the current POTUS at Trump’s inauguration.
The search warrant, delivered last Friday, demands “messages, records, files, logs, or information that have been deleted but are still available” for the site. Specifically, it asks for “evidence… involving the individuals who participated, planned, organized, or incited” the January 20 protests at Trump’s inauguration. If DreamHost were to hand over the information, they would be handing over very personal information for a sum total of 1.3 million individuals.
According to Disrupt J20, the Trump administration could be used in cases involving “196 defendants facing 80+ years in prison” for the events of January 20, 2017.
The request has many privacy experts asking why the government is seeking the information in the first place. Although the protests did become violent in part — several police officers and nearly 200 people were injured — it certainly cannot be said that everyone involved is guilty of violence or inciting violence. In fact, the majority of protestors did not become violent, making the warrant feel more like a “fishing expedition.”
DreamHost agrees; that’s why they’re fighting the warrant in court. The hosting company released a statement just days ago calling the request “overreaching” and contradictory to the right to protest, the right to personal safety, and American freedom.
“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.”
DreamHost’s lawyer, Chris Ghazarian, filed legal arguments to oppose the demands outlining exactly how and why the request is damaging and should be refused. Both the hosting company and Ghazarian claim the warrant violates the Fourth Amendment and “endangers the First Amendment rights of third parties.” DreamHost also claims the request violates the Privacy Protection Act and D.C. state law.
Ghazarian set precedent in the rebuttal by including information for 23 different cases in which the courts either rejected or revised requests for private information. Many of these landmark cases involved other nationally-recognized websites, including the much-aligned MySpace.
DreamHost is also working with several other privacy organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who called the warrant an unconstitutional fishing expedition.
“I can’t conceive of a legitimate justification other than casting your net as broadly as possible to justify millions of user logs,” said Foundation representative Mark Rumold.
Rumold has intense concerns about the fact that the government wants information for everyone, not just those known to be involved in inciting or committing acts of violence.
“What they would be getting is a list of everyone who has ever been interested in attending these protests or seeing what was going on at the protests and that’s the troubling aspect. It’s a short step after you have the list to connect the IP address to someone’s identity.”
He also pointed out that the site doesn’t break any laws as-is; even if its visitors commit violence, the site isn’t really responsible unless it directs them to do so.
“This is pure first amendment advocacy – the type of advocacy the first amendment was designed to protect and promote. Frankly I’m glad DreamHost is pushing back on it.”
DreamHost and the Trump administration will have their day in court on August 18 in Washington, D.C. Until then, the fight seems to be working in DreamHost’s favor; a visit to their Facebook page or Twitter account reveals overwhelming public support for the host for a long list of reasons.