Trump’s DOJ Demands IP Addresses of Anyone Who Visted An Anti-Trump Site
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President Trump issued three statements denouncing the neo-Nazi and white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA that left three dead and dozens injured, and it wasn’t until the third try that he explicitly denounced the hateful groups involved. The Trump administration has launched a civil rights investigation into the Charlotte violence, but they’ve also requested the IP addresses of anyone who visited a specific anti-Trump website.
The DoJ issued a warrant on Monday to DreamHost, demanding that the site relinquish all of the IP addresses that visited “DisruptJ20.org” a site that organized anti-Trump protests on inauguration day. The hosting service has not complied, because they believe the request by the DoJ is overly broad since it would give them identifying information on more than a million people who visited the site.
In a post from their blog, DreamHost details their reasons (emphasis theirs):
Chris Ghazarian, our General Counsel, has taken issue with this particular search warrant for being a highly untargeted demand that chills free association and the right of free speech afforded by the Constitution.
The request from the DOJ demands that DreamHost hand over 1.3 millionvisitor IP addresses — in addition to contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people — in an effort to determine who simply visitedthe website. (Our customer has also been notified of the pending warrant on the account.)
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. That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind.
Counsel for DreamHost, Chris Ghazarian, said that this warrant represents a clear case of “investigatory overreach” and “clear abuse of government authority.”
The warrant stems from Inauguration Day protests, some of which turned violent after a group of people in black face masks broke windows and damaged property.
More than 200 protesters who were arrested that day, along with journalists, now face anywhere from 70 to 80 years in prison should they be convicted of riot charges.
Even some Trump supporters, such as Ronn Blitzer who often writes Trump-friendly posts for LawNewz.com, think this warrant goes far further than it should.
By allowing the government to obtain the IP addresses of individual visitors to the site, they could determine the identities of the users themselves, or at least the people to who the IPs are registered. Theoretically, this could help the government determine who was behind violent illegal acts on Inauguration Day, but it might not. What it would do is remove anonymity from internet users who visited a site as an expression of their political leanings.
However, other legal experts suggest that this is simply the first stage of a normal, two-stage process when it comes to electronic records. First, investigators get access to all of the digital records, and then they search through those for the specific evidence they need.
“As I read it, Dreamhost is essentially challenging the widely accepted two-stage warrant practice,” Orin Kerr writes for The Washington Post, adding that a few “federal magistrate judges in the ‘magistrate’s revolt’ have made [a similar] argument, but they generally have been overruled at the district court level.”
Still, in the context of the Trump administration, it’s enough to cause concern among civil liberties advocates and legal experts alike.
“This is chilling, particularly when it comes from an administration that has expressed so much overt hostility to protesters, so relentlessly conflated all protesters with those who break the law, and so deliberately framed America as being at war with the administration’s domestic enemies,” Ken White of the Popehat blog wrote.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation also condemned the warrant and has offered to help DreamHost fight the warrant.
Since taking control of the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has tried to take the agency back to its more draconian days of private prisons, high mandatory minimum sentences, and the aforementioned decades-long sentences for demonstrators. A woman who was removed from his confirmation hearing for simply laughing at the former Alabama senator faced a year in prison for it, though that conviction was later thrown about by a D.C. judge, in favor of a new trial.
Often the words “authoritarian” or “police state” are thrown around as metaphors, but in this case the comparison is far more literal. The U.S. legal system has had difficulty applying the spirit of the Fourth Amendment to the digital age. The idea that the Feds can order all records of your activity on a particular internet site with limited-to-no probable cause should terrify everyone who uses the internet.
A hearing on the warrant’s scope and merits will be held Friday in the Washington D.C. Superior Court.
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