A senior Washington judge has ordered that anti-President Trump website data be handed over by its Californian web-host provider. Prosecutors want to identify activists implicated in Inauguration Day unrest.
Los Angeles-based DreamHost said via its defense lawyers that Thursday's order issued by Judge Robert Morin in Washington DC would have a "chilling effect” on electronic political activism.
Morin's order tells the firm, which hosts 1.5 million websites, blogs and apps, to hand US Justice Department prosecutors electronic records related to disruptj20.org - spanning the period of October 2016 until January 2017.
During Inauguration Day on January 20, more than 200 people were arrested for allegedly rioting and vandalizing Washington business property. A limousine was also allegedly set on fire.
In late January, DreamHost was told to preserve records. In July, the Washington-based prosecutors got a warrant to search and seize data linked to the website, whose developers it accused of planning a "violent riot."
DreamHost objected, accusing prosecutors of wanting to seize unspecified data in bulk, adding that it must be able to protect its clients under US free speech and privacy safeguards, including the Privacy Protection Act.
Prosecutors replied that court limitations had already been imposed on the scope of the materials "that the government may seize."
Judge to personally supervise
Issuing the order to comply on Thursday, Morin, chief judge of the District of Colombia Superior Court, said he would personally supervise the sifting of raw information and would limit seizures to evidence on the rioting.
Morin, at the hearing, acknowledged tension between free speech rights and law enforcement within the context of digital records, according to Reuters.
One of the lawyers for Dreamhost, Chris Ghazarian, insisted that the case "is not about protecting the information once it's been turned over.”
"It's about preventing the information from being turned over in the first place,” Ghazarian said.
Another lawyer acting for DreamHost, Raymond O. Aghaian, had also told the court in writing that the search and seizure would amount to the firm turning over "every piece of information it has about every visitor to a website expressing political views concerning the current [Trump] administration."
It would have a "chilling effect on political expression," he said.
Prosecutors were seeking IP addresses and e-mails "initiated by innocent third parties,” said Aghaian and Ghazarian.
"During [the] six days after the Inauguration, the website received over 1,300,000 HTTP requests, each of which generated an IP log of the visit,” they said.
Violence not advocated
The website, disruptj20.org, had referred to "organizing,” "resistance,” "disruptions,” and "civil disobedience,” but it did "not describe acts of property damage or violence,” added the attornies.
"In essence, the search warrant not only aims to identify the political dissidents of the current administration, but attempts to identify and understand what content each of these dissidents viewed on the website," they wrote.
The DC court also lacked the extrajudicial authority to order a search outside Washington DC for "electronic data stored in Oregon," they claimed.
Returns of data?
"It also fails to provide DreamHost with any assurance that the government will return or destroy the large portion of the information irrelevant to the government's criminal case or cases," they added.
DreamHost's published policy says it takes privacy "very seriously” and will only disclose data during a government investigation "when permitted by law.”
The case has been highlighted by the American non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) which accuses prosecutors in Washington DC of "still using unconstitutional methods to pursue their investigation."
ipj/rc (AP, Reuters)