While the United States government has pushed for increasing mass surveillance over the years, the latest requests from the Department of Justice could set the Trump Administration apart from its predecessors as it demands the IP addresses of at least 1.3 million people who visited an anti-Trump website.
In a blog post published by the web hosting provider DreamHost, it confirmed that it has been working with the DOJ for several months “to comply with legal process, including a Search Warrant (PDF) seeking information about one of our customers’ websites,” and it is now attempting to challenge the request, in order to ensure users’ privacy.
The website in question is disruptj20.org, which DreamHost described as “a website that organized participants of political protests against the current United States administration.” Although the host claims to have “no insight into the affidavit for the search warrant” because the records are sealed, it noted that “the DOJ has recently asked DreamHost to provide all information available to us about this website, its owner, and, more importantly, its visitors.”
DreamHost noted that in addition to the 1.3 million visitor IP addresses, the DOJ’s demands include “contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people—in an effort to determine who simply visited the website.”
“DreamHost, like many online service providers, is approached by law enforcement regularly to provide information about customers who may be the subject of criminal investigations. These types of requests are not uncommon; our legal department reviews and scrutinizes each request and, when necessary, rejects and challenges vague or faulty orders.”
More than 200 people were indicted on felony rioting charges in connection with the DisruptJ20 protests that were scheduled around President Trump’s inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20.
As a result, the DOJ is now claiming that it needs access to records and information on the website and its owner, along with IP addresses that could be used to identify at least 1.3 million visitors, on the basis that those visitors could be guilty of “coordinating illegal behavior.”
However, DreamHost is fighting back, and arguing that the information DOJ is requesting “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.”
In a legal statement opposing the request, DreamHost’s general counsel, Chris Ghazarian, said the search warrant “not only aims to identify the political dissidents of the current administration, but attempts to identify and understand what content each of these dissidents viewed on the website.”
By publicizing its fight with the DOJ, DreamHost is following in the footsteps of Apple when it alerted the public about its battle with the FBI in March 2016. A hearing on the case of DreamHost vs. DOJ is scheduled for Friday in Washington.
“The internet was founded—and continues to survive, in the main—on its democratizing ability to facilitate a free exchange of ideas. Internet users have a reasonable expectation that they will not get swept up in criminal investigations simply by exercising their right to political speech against the government. We intend to take whatever steps are necessary to support and shield these users from what is, in our view, a very unfocused search and an unlawful request for their personal information.”