President Trump doesn’t like people who don’t like him—and he has shown again and again that he doesn’t much care about the rule of law either, at least as it applies to the actions of himself and his supporters.
So it was shocking last week—but given the tenor of Jeff Session’s Department of Justice so far, perhaps no surprise—when DreamHost came public with a peculiar request from DOJ demanding the internet company hand over the IP address information of 1.3 million visitors to a website that was used to organize a protest aimed at disrupting President Trump’s inauguration: disruptj20.org. DreamHost, which provided hosting for the website, pushed back, calling the request over-broad and essentially a fishing expedition to track down those who disagree with the president. “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,” DreamHost complained in a blog post. In addition to the IP logs, the warrant also sought the date and time of when people visited the site, as well as information about what browser and operating system they used, and any unpublished blog posts or photos associated with the account of the site.
Now, after strong public outcry, the Justice Department has significantly narrowed its request, which DreamHost has described as a “huge win” for internet privacy. The new warrant limits the original request to records bweteen the dates of July 1, 2016 to Jan. 20, 2017, and also no longer asks for draft blog posts or unpublished photos saved with the protest website. It’s good that the DOJ is no longer going to get its hands on the name of anyone who ever wandered over to the domain, since there’s absolutely nothing illegal about visiting a website about planning a protest. Learning about a protest online is the exact kind of activity the First Amendment protects.
“The government values and respects the first amendment right of all Americans to participate in peaceful political protests and to read protected political expression online,” Department of Justice prosecutors wrote in their latest filing. “Contrary to DreamHost’s claims, the warrant was not intended to be used, and will not be used, to ‘identify the political dissidents of the current administration.’ ”
While it’s heartening that the Department of Justice is explicit about its intent to not profile people for engaging in a protected activity, the updated request still isn’t totally reasonable. That, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the nonprofit helping DreamHost with the case (where, full disclosure, I once worked), is because of the sensitive nature of the government investigating a website that’s specifically intended to organize political dissent. If the Department of Justice was truly not interested in identifying political dissidents, then it would allow a third party, like a judge, to review the records provided by DreamHost before they’re handed over to the executive branch. That way the Department of Justice would be more likely to get exactly what it was looking for instead of, say, a massive amount of data about people who visited a site in the six months leading up Trump’s inauguration.
So although the scope is significantly limited, and certainly far less than the previously requested 1.3 million IP addresses aren’t being delivered to Trump’s Justice Department, six months of information is an awful lot of stuff. And it still feels like a fishing expedition for people who are engaged in lawful political dissent.