Democracy Dies in Darkness

Public Safety

Judge orders tech company to release Web user data from anti-Trump website

By Keith L. Alexander

August 24, 2017 at 2:49 PM

Watch more!
DreamHost is resisting a DOJ search warrant for more than 1.3 million IP addresses to identify visitors to a website set up to coordinate protests on Inauguration Day. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

A D.C. Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that a Los Angeles-based tech company must provide email addresses and other computer information from people who visited an anti-Trump website in the months leading to Inauguration Day.

During an hour-long hearing, attorneys for DreamHost, which hosts the website Disruptj20.org, argued the federal search warrant still was too broad and would include information about people who visited the site but were not part of violent Inauguration Day rioting.

The riots left six police officers injured and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage when downtown D.C. businesses were vandalized just blocks from where President Trump and his family paraded following the swearing-in ceremony.

Prosecutors have filed felony rioting charges against some 200 people who they say participated in the riots and are asking for the website information as they pursue their criminal cases.

DreamHost attorney Raymond Aghaian said the site was not an anti-Trump website but an "advocacy site that addresses political issues."

"They are requesting all database and database records," Aghaian said. "With one warrant, they are trying to obtain content from multiple email accounts. That is unconstitutional."

Judge Robert E. Morin's ruling ordering a data release covers website information between October 2016 and Jan. 20, 2017, Inauguration Day.

Related: [Tech firm fights federal demand of information on anti-Trump website users ]

Last month, prosecutors obtained a warrant to compel DreamHost to turn over emails, images and other information from computer users who visited the website.

Thursday's order restricts the time frame for which data will be reviewed.

Prosecutors' original request in July would have yielded IP addresses for about 1.3 million users of the site, court filings show.

In ordering DreamHost to provide user information for a shorter time window, Morin said he was trying to strike a balance between the free-speech rights of people who used the political site, the rights of "innocent users of the website" and prosecutors' investigation into the riots.

"There is a need to review the data and decide what is relevant," he said.

The decision by prosecutors to seek a court-ordered search warrant for website visitor information created an uproar among DreamHost executives and political rights advocates who argued the search violated constitutional protections.

DreamHost is not the first Internet company to challenge the government in its quest to prosecute individuals associated with the riots.

Facebook has filed its opposition at the D.C. Court of Appeals to a court order that blocks the social media giant from letting users know when law enforcement investigators ask to search their online information, particularly their political affiliations and comments.

DreamHosts's battle with prosecutors is separate but still tied to the inauguration riots. After prosecutors' July request covering the IP addresses for about 1.3 million users of the site, DreamHost executives asked for a court hearing over their objections to the search warrant.

Prosecutors earlier this week scaled back their request and changed it to seek emails associated with Disruptj20.org and email addresses of third parties associated with the website, such as individuals who volunteered to help provide supplies or support to rioters.

Related: [Federal prosecutors scale back request for info on visitors to anti-Trump website]

At the hearing Thursday, DreamHost attorneys said even the narrowed request was still too broad because it could capture information on people who had nothing to do with the riots.

"This action will cause Web users to worry that the government will be monitoring every site they visit," Aghaian said.

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the advocacy group Public Citizen, joined DreamHost in its opposition to the warrant. Levy argued on behalf of the unnamed users who, he said, should be alerted that their information may be turned over to the government.

"This is a case about a website that is engaged in political speech," Levy told the court.

Prosecutors John Borchert and Jennifer Kerkhoff argued that their request had to be somewhat broad because they have no idea who was associated with the rioting through the website until they review the data.

As part of his ruling, Morin ordered prosecutors to tell him who was going to review the data DreamHost provides and, once that information is found, explain to him why prosecutors deem the information "critical" to their case.

Under Morin's ruling, any information prosecutors find unrelated to the rioting would be sealed and could not be shared by prosecutors with anyone else or any other government authority.

Attorneys for DreamHost said they will turn over the information but are considering appealing the judge's decision.

Morin then ordered DreamHost to turn over the website information to the court. The judge said he would maintain the data until DreamHost decides about its appeal.

If the company does not appeal and if Morin's ruling is not reversed by court of appeals review, Morin said he will turn the data over to prosecutors.

Read more:

Facebook says it shouldn't have to stay mum when government seeks user data

District police officer will not face charges in 2016 fatal shooting of motorcyclist

'Honey, you've been scammed,' she was told. She lost her home of 30 years.


Keith L. Alexander covers crime and courts, specifically D.C. Superior Court cases for The Washington Post. Alexander was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team that investigated fatal police shootings across the nation in 2015. Follow him on Twitter: @keithlalexander

Post Recommends
Outbrain

You obviously love great journalism.

With special savings on our Basic Digital package, you’ll never miss a single story again.

Already a subscriber?

Secure & Encrypted