DOJ Demands Data on Visitors to Anti-Trump Protest Website

Posted Aug. 23, 2017

MP3 Interview with Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative director with the group, Defending Rights and Dissent, conducted by Scott Harris

dissent

The Justice Department, under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is demanding data from a webhosting company on more than 1.3 million IP addresses, as well as the email addresses and photos of thousands of people who had visited a website that organized protests at Donald Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration in Washington, D.C. A search warrant was approved by Judge Robert Wertheim.

DreamHost, the company targeted, hosted the DisruptJ20.org website has thus far refused to comply with the Justice Department search warrant, declaring that the order constitutes “investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.” Civil liberties advocates raised alarm that the government’s demand would chill dissent and free speech.

The Justice Department has indicated that the demand for this data is linked with more than 200 people who were arrested on felony riot charges during the inauguration for allegedly engaging in property destruction, such as breaking store windows and setting a limousine on fire. Journalists and legal observers sere among those arrested in police sweeps. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Chip Gibbons, policy and legislative director with the group, Defending Rights and Dissent. Here, Gibbons explains why he believes that this search warrant is designed to silence dissent and make people afraid to speak out. After this interview was conducted, the Department of Justice dropped its demand for 1.3 million IP addresses, but still seeks subscriber account information.

CHIP GIBBONS: The Justice Department claims there is evidence relating to the DC felony rioting statute that they can obtain. Their warrant demands practically all company records and information associated with the website. If Dreamhost were to comply with the request, it would have to hand over roughly 1.3 million visitor IP addresses, in addition to contact information, email contact and photos of thousands of visitors to the website. It would have to give the content of all the email inquiries sent to the website and comments submitted from numerous private email accounts. And if you think about it, this is an absurd amount of information to look for to have an isolated incident apply. I mean, it's such a broad warrant. It's, at its best a fishing expedition and at the worst – this is what I suspect – to chill dissent.

BETWEEN THE LINES: To their credit, the webhosting company, Dreamhost, is fighting this search warrant. What effective measures are they taking to try to tamp down this Justice Department request for this data?

CHIP GIBBONS: They're trying to fight the warrant by saying it's unconstitutional; it's a law that violated some U.S. statutes. Their argument is that it is a Fourth Amendment search that has potentially First Amendment information that could be gathered from it and therefore, there needs to be a higher standard in reviewing it. It has to have particular exactitude and that it's not a very exact warrant.

There's also claims it breaks the Privacy Act and some other constitutional claims. It comes very close to me to feeling like a general warrant, which of course, the general warrants from the colonial days are what the Fourth Amendment is supposed to prevent from happening. But even beyond the Fourth Amendment issue, I mean, we have the First Amendment issue. They're getting the information about people who engaged in First Amendment protected activity. I don't ever want to make predictions about these kinds of things, but I am cautiously optimistic.

I had read the EFF's legal brief on behalf of Dreamhost; I think it's very well argued and very well-reasoned. I think this warrant is shocking. But if you yourself want to take action, a number of groups including Defending Rights and Dissent are gathering signatures to Jeff Sessions asking him to withdraw the warrant. If you want to sign one of those, you can go to www.rightsanddissent.org. And while legal victories are important, I also think social movement victories are important. And while I know people are probably thinking Jeff Sessions is not the most sympathetic recipient of a petition for this, I think it's really important to show that regardless of what we think Jeff Sessions will do, that there's political opposition. Politically mobilized against it. I think that we've seen a lot of some of the worst instincts of the Trump administration curtailed by popular movements and I think if they see how horrified people are by this and those people start speaking out, that will send a powerful message because the purpose of this warrant is to silence people but we need to be speaking out right now about it.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What's the danger here in terms of the legal precedent that could be set if the Justice Department gets their way and they get this data that would give them specific information on how to find some 1.3 million people who visited this website, this anti-Trump organizing website?

CHIP GIBBONS: I mean, the biggest danger is its going to chill speech. I think most people, many people don't want the Trump administration to be compiling a list of anti-Trump people with their name on it. So if people know that you go to the DisruptJ20 website, you could get your name sent to the Department of Justice. You might think twice about going to a different anti-Trump website and then people aren't organizing.

There's also the consolation of activism with criminality, and I think that is just all part of a larger program to crack down on dissent. You see it with the warrant. You see it with these prosecutions. And see it in state legislatures across the country that are trying to pass these really awful bills meant to deter people from protesting.

For more information, visit Defending Rights and Dissent at rightsanddissent.org.

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