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Federal prosecutors scale back request for info on visitors to anti-Trump website

Media and protesters moved through the smoke of percussion grenades as protesters and police clash on D.C. streets on Inauguration Day. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Federal prosecutors are seeking to quell concern from privacy advocates by scaling back the government’s demand for millions of IP addresses from a Los Angeles-based tech company as part of an investigation into rioters in Washington during the Jan. 20 inauguration.

In July, a D.C. Superior Court judge signed a warrant filed by prosecutors in which they sought more than 1.3 million IP addresses to identify visitors to the website from DreamHost, the company that hosts the site. Prosecutors say the website was used to coordinate violent protests during President Trump’s inauguration.

DreamHost and privacy rights advocates, such as the nonprofit group Public Citizen argued that the warrant was overly broad and violated the users' constitutional rights. The move to modify the government's request for data came as a hearing over the matter is scheduled for Thursday in D.C. Superior Court before Judge Robert E. Morin, the court's chief judge.

In a filing late Tuesday, prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office in the District amended the original warrant by saying they plan to focus only on the 200 or so people who have been charged with rioting.

Tech firm fights warrant calling for information on millions of IP users

The 1.3 million Internet Protocol addresses, prosecutors say, were from computer users who visited the website between Jan. 23 and Jan. 28, 2017, days after the inauguration, and are not part of the case.

“The government has no interest in records relating to the 1.3 million IP addresses that are mentioned in DreamHost’s numerous press releases and opposition briefs,” prosecutors wrote in their filing. Prosecutors also said that they would “set aside” and seal any information obtained from DreamHost that is not originally sought after and specifically in the warrant. Prosecutors, however, did say they could revisit such information obtained but would do so only with a court order.

As part of their amended request, prosecutors said they were seeking email addresses associated with, as well as email addresses of third parties associated with the website.

Prosecutors allege that Disrupt J20 helped plan protests that pulled in participants from across the country. They said some rioters used “black bloc” tactics — wearing all black and hiding their faces with masks and goggles so it would be harder to identify them. The rioters smashed storefronts, causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage. Six police officers were injured.

Prosecutors are seeking membership discussion lists associated with the website as well as more than 2,000 photographs associated with the site. Prosecutors are also asking for unpublished material, such as “draft blog posts” and “hundreds” of other images.

On Tuesday, DreamHost said in a statement that it viewed the government’s amended request as “a huge win for Internet privacy.” The company said it “appreciates” the government’s “willingness to look at and reconsider both the scope and the depth of their original request for records.”

The company said, however, it still has a “few issues” that it considers “problematic” with the warrant, which it plans to address at Thursday’s hearing.

In the amended filing, prosecutors said they were unaware at the time of their initial July warrant request that the DreamHost data would be so voluminous.

“The government is focused on the criminal acts of defendants and their co-conspirators, and not their political views — and certainly not the lawful activities of peaceful protesters,” the prosecutors wrote in the new filing. “Similarly, the government is focused on the use of the Website to organize, to plan, and to effect a criminal act — that is, a riot.”

Prosecutors have charged more than 200 people with various crimes associated with the inauguration riots and have obtained 19 guilty pleas. Trials for about 200 defendants are scheduled to begin this fall and last through 2018.

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