The Los Angeles-based web hosting firm Dreamhost is fighting the Department of Justice over the attempted exposure of visitors to the anti-Donald Trump website DisruptJ20.org, the company has revealed.
On Monday, Dreamhost said the DOJ hit it with a search warrant a month ago, requesting all the data that the hosting firm has on the website, which is one of its clients. Crucially, this data includes details that could be used to identify the 1.3 million people who have visited the site.
DisruptJ20.org was used to organize protests in Washington, D.C. on Trump's inauguration day, 20 January. The protests turned violent in part, and the site is now primarily being used to organize legal support for the hundreds of protestors who were arrested.
The Justice Department wants Dreamhost to hand over the IP addresses of all the site's visitors – this refers to the numerical strings identifying the physical internet connections that people used to access the site. It also wants "contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people," Dreamhost said.
"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," the hosting firm wrote in a blog post. "That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind."
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Dreamhost said its general counsel, Chris Ghazarian, had "taken issue" with the demand's untargeted nature. When the company pushed back, the government asked the Washington, D.C. Superior Court to order Dreamhost to hand over its records. Now the company has filed a response in opposition to the government's motion.
"Internet users have a reasonable expectation that they will not get swept up in criminal investigations simply by exercising their right to political speech against the government," Dreamhost said. "We intend to take whatever steps are necessary to support and shield these users from what is, in our view, a very unfocused search and an unlawful request for their personal information."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the world's biggest digital rights organization with over 30,000 paid-up members, has been giving Dreamhost professional support in the case, though not representing it as such. "The Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit fishing expeditions like this," the EFF wrote in a separate blog post.