A US judge has ordered that all user details of a Trump protest website be handed over to the US Department of Justice following several weeks of argument over the demand.
Hosting company DreamHost went public with its concerns over the DoJ's original search warrant, which demanded all information related to the disruptj20.org site, arguing that it broke the First and Fourth Amendments and was tantamount to political persecution.
In response, the DoJ narrowed its warrant to include only registered users of the website, and argued in court on Thursday that it needed the information to continue its investigation into criminal acts carried out by anti-Trump protesters on Inauguration Day. The government suspects that some violent protests were organized through the website.
DreamHost argued [PDF] that even the narrowed request was too broad, since it asked for the contents of all email accounts created on the site without ascertaining that any of them had been involved in the riot and criminal damage it is investigating.
In seeking a balance between privacy and criminal investigation, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Robert Morin approved the narrowed request but placed several constraints on the government.
Under his "minimization plan," the government must name the government investigators who will have access to the data, and list the methods they will use. In addition, the court will oversee the search and the DoJ must justify why they believe the information provided is "responsive to" the warrant, ie, directly relevant to their criminal investigation.
The DoJ will not be allowed to share the information with any other government agency and the court will seal any information that it decides is "not responsive," meaning that to access it the government will need to get a court order.
DreamHost has hailed the decision as a victory.
"We did it. We made the internet better," it announced in a blog post following the decision. "Sometimes big wins don't look like big wins. Sometimes they look like a lot of little wins, all strung together!"
The narrowed request represents an "extremely limited subset of the original request," and the court's restrictions represent "a clear victory for user privacy," DreamHost argues, noting: "If we had simply remained silent and handed over the data at the first sign of a warrant, investigators would today be sitting on a pile of information that could be used to track down and identify tens of thousands of individual web users who are themselves accused of no crime but would have found their personal browsing habits included and associated with this investigation."
The company noted that it was obliged to follow the court's instructions, but said it was "considering" an appeal that would prevent the DoJ's access to the data until it was resolved and "potentially forever if our appeal is found to have merit."
Less happy with the result is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which said it was "glad to see that the judge is taking steps to oversee the government's "narrowed" search," but that it still represented an "overseizure of digital information."
"Overseizure is especially troubling where, as in this case, First Amendment-protected activity and speech is being threatened and chilled by the prospect of government intrusion," the EFF continued.
"Our civil liberties should not be circumvented in the digital space just because the law has failed to keep up with the nuances of technology." ®