A Los Angeles-based tech company is resisting a federal demand for more than 1.3 million IP addresses to identify visitors to a website set up to coordinate protests on Inauguration Day — a request whose breadth the company says violates the Constitution.
“What we have is a sweeping request for every single file we have” in relation to DisruptJ20.org, said Chris Ghazarian, general counsel for DreamHost, which hosts the site. “The search warrant is not only dealing with everything in relation to the website but also tons of data about people who visited it.”
The request also covers emails between the site’s organizers and people interested in attending the protests, any deleted messages and files, as well as subscriber information — such as names and addresses — and unpublished photos and blog posts that are stored in the site’s database, according to the warrant and Ghazarian.
The request, which DreamHost made public Monday, set off a storm of protest among civil liberties advocates and within the tech community.
“What you’re seeing is pure prosecutorial overreach by a politicized Justice Department, allowing the Trump administration to use prosecutors to silence critics,” Ghazarian said.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the District of Columbia, which sought the warrant, declined to comment. But prosecutors, in court documents, argued that the request was constitutional and there was no reason for DreamHost not to comply.
The search warrant was issued July 12 by a Superior Court judge in the District of Columbia and served on DreamHost on July 17.
The request marked an escalation from January when prosecutors investigating the protests asked DreamHost to preserve records and issued a subpoena for a limited set of data on the site. The company complied with both requests, Ghazarian said.
In April, the federal government charged more than 200 people in connection with the protests that injured six police officers and damaged store windows and at least one vehicle. The charges included property damage and assault.
After the search warrant was served, DreamHost raised concerns with Assistant U.S. Attorney John W. Borchert, according to court documents. The company thought the request was overbroad and that it sought information — such as draft blog posts — in violation of the 1980 Privacy Protection Act.
Prosecutors responded July 28 with a motion to compel the company to turn over the data on DisruptJ20. “That website was used in the development, planning, advertisement and organization of a violent riot that occurred in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2017,” U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips said in the motion. DreamHost’s concern about breadth “simply is not a sufficient basis . . . to refuse to comply with the warrant.”
The prosecutors also argued that the warrant identified the “precise categories of information” that DreamHost must provide and “precise limitations” on the information that the government may seize. They also argued that the Privacy Protection Act does not preclude the government from seizing even “protected” materials with a search warrant.
On Friday, DreamHost filed a reply arguing that the warrant’s breadth violates the Fourth Amendment because it failed to describe with “particularity” the items to be seized. Asking for “all records or other information” pertaining to the site, including “all files, databases and database records” is far too broad, the company said.
The warrant also raises First Amendment issues, it said. Visitors to the protest site should have the right to keep their identities private, but if they fear that the Justice Department will have information on them, that will chill their freedom of speech and association, the company argued.
The company said that the warrant would require them to turn over data on potentially tens of thousands of law-abiding website visitors.
Mark Rumold, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that no plausible explanation exists for a search warrant of such breadth, “other than to cast a digital dragnet as broadly as possible.”
He said that the government appears to be investigating a conspiracy to riot, “but it’s doing it in a blunt manner that does not take into account the significant First Amendment interests.”
Even people who were nowhere near Washington on Inauguration Day who visited the website will have their data “swept into a criminal investigation,” he said.
A hearing is scheduled for Friday in Superior Court before Judge Lynn Leibovitz.