Judge Restricts Justice Department’s Expansive Warrant Against Protest Site Hosts

Posted on October 14, 2017

A case that might appear to involve merely a legal technicality regarding the scope of a warrant actually here involves a major and under-reported threat to First Amendment protest rights:

A judge on the District of Columbia Superior Court has moved to dramatically limit the execution of a federal warrant against the hosting provider of disruptj20.org, a peaceful anti-Trump protest website.  Superior Court judge Robert E. Morin ruled that the Department of Justice must demonstrate that a particular individual is clearly and directly relevant to the prosecution in order to request identifying information about them from DreamHost, the site’s hosting service (which retains the site’s activity records). Critically, such newly protected personal information includes the IP address from which they visited the site, which can not only personally identify a visitor but can also reveal their physical location. 

The decision limits what was previously (as CCDBR profiled in an earlier piece) an extraordinarily invasive search warrant, which requested the IP addresses, submitted form data, email addresses, and other personally identifying information on all of the site’s 1.3 million visitors. Under these new court-ordered limitations, the government is more likely to restrict its search to a much smaller subset of the initially targeted 3 million visitors, as the bar for securing the data of each and every visitor is now set much higher and would require considerable effort on the part of prosecutors. 

Despite this substantial gain, civil liberties advocates point out glaring shortcomings in the court order. Lawyer Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen notes that under the ruling the Justice Department is allowed to submit its justifications under seal, obscuring its rationale from public scrutiny. Equally troubling, Levy points out, is that there are no curbs on the government’s ability to force the disclosure of information on individuals who browsed the site anonymously, thereby putting them at risk of identification.

Indeed, the current state of the warrant, while much improved, still does not stray far from a general warrant–a resemblance which formed the basis of DreamHost’s resistance and accompanying outcry by civil libertarians in the first place. The investigative hurdles placed on the Justice Department to show the direct relation of a targeted individual to the prosecution make the warrant less general, but the fact that there is no restriction on searches into anonymous visitors nonetheless preserves it as a general warrant. 

You can read the full piece from Ars Technica here