The Project On Government Oversight and over 60 other civil society groups are raising concerns about a broad search warrant by the Justice Department seeking information related to a site used to organize Inauguration Day protests.
The government initially demanded web-hosting service DreamHost turn over basically all of the information it had about anti-Trump organizing site DisruptJ20.org. In an opposition motion, DreamHost said the warrant appeared to require it to turn over the IP addresses of approximately 1.3 million visitors to the site—effectively demanding a list identifying people who accessed information about protesting the current administration.
DOJ scaled back the request this week after facing public pressure, and Thursday a DC judge ordered DreamHost to comply. But POGO and other groups say even the amended warrant raises “significant Fourth and First amendment issues.” While prosecutors dropped the visitor log demand and limited the timeframe of the request, the revised warrant still forces DreamHost to turn over IP addresses of people who sent email inquiries or submitted comments on the site, as well as the content of those communications—regardless of whether or not they’re connected to the roughly 200 people arrested for alleged inauguration protest violence.
“The information yielded by this demand could allow the government to identify individuals engaged in constitutionally protected speech and dissent, as well as members of the news media and the public who simply participated in meetings or communicated with organizers whose email accounts are affiliated with the J20 website,” a letter the organizations sent to Attorney General Jeff Sessions Thursday warns.
The civil society organizations are also concerned because the Justice Department is maintaining that its original dragnet warrant was legal—and because the government only narrowed its demand after DreamHost went public with their challenge. That leaves open the possibility that DOJ has sought other similar warrants that haven’t received “the same level of public scrutiny generated by the DreamHost case,” or could do so in the future.
Cases like this highlight the urgent need to apply meaningful Fourth Amendment protections in the digital age. This isn’t a new problem: POGO and its allies have long raised the alarm about overreaching federal efforts to suck up information about Americans’ lawful activities—including Obama-era National Security Agency surveillance programs. And now the judicial system, all the way up to the Supreme Court, is grappling with these issues.
But while the courts play technological catch up, the Justice Department should err on the side of protecting Americans’ constitutional rights, and not use the modern equivalent of a general warrant to curtail citizens’ civil liberties.