Judge orders identities redacted in anti-Trump website data turnover

Judge orders identities redacted in anti-Trump website data turnover

A District of Columbia court has issued its final order in a case involving a federal warrant for data on an anti-Trump website, incorporating safeguards to address free speech and privacy concerns. 

Chief Judge Robert E. Morin on Tuesday ordered DreamHost, a web hosting company, to turn over data to the federal government on a website used to organize Inauguration Day protests against President Trump. The final order, however, states that information on third-party users of the website must be redacted, in order to protect their identities. 

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Morin, of the Superior Court of D.C., initially ruled that the government could proceed with the warrant under the court’s supervision back in August, but DreamHost’s lawyers continued to object, citing First and Fourth Amendment concerns, and signaled they would appeal the ruling. 

The Justice Department is seeking information and data on disruptj20.org, a website used to organize the protests in January, in connection with an ongoing investigation into criminal rioting on Inauguration Day.

The original warrant generated massive attention over the summer when DreamHost said that it would amount to turning over roughly 1.3 million visitor IP addresses to the federal government. 

The U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. later amended its warrant to exclude visitor IP addresses or information protected by the Privacy Protection Act. Still, DreamHost continued to argue that complying with the warrant would involve turning over email lists and correspondence between website managers and innocent third parties, potentially chilling political speech. 

The company’s lawyers cheered the final order as a win on Tuesday.

“We’re happy to see significant changes that will protect the constitutional rights of innocent Internet users,” said Christopher Ghazarian, DreamHost’s general counsel, in a statement. “Absent a finding by the Court that probable cause of criminal activity exists, the government will not be able to uncover the identities of these users.” 

The court’s final order incorporates a number of “procedural safeguards” to protect data on website users who were not involved in the Inauguration Day protests, including requiring the government to file a report spelling out its search protocol and minimization procedures. The government can only proceed with the search after the court approves its procedures. 

After the search, the government must file an itemized list of the materials it wants to seize and why in order to obtain the data in unredacted form. The government will only be able to review information without redactions if it constitutes evidence of criminal activity, and is required to permanently delete the data that does not fall under the scope of the warrant.

“Because of the potential breadth of the government’s review in this case, the warrant in its execution may implicate otherwise innocuous and constitutionally protected activity,” Morin wrote in his final order.

“As the court has previously stated, while the government has the right to execute its warrant, it does not have the right to rummage through the information contained on DreamHost’s website and discover the identity of, or access communications by, individuals not participating in alleged criminal activity, particularly those persons who were engaging in protected First Amendment activities,” the judge wrote. 

Morin ruled from the bench at a court hearing on Aug. 24 that the government could move ahead with the search warrant. Both DreamHost and the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. filed their own proposed orders following the hearing.