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Court orders company to produce data on anti-Trump site
A court in the District of Columbia on Thursday ordered web hosting company DreamHost to produce data and information requested by the Department of Justice (DOJ) related to an anti-President Trump website.
Chief Judge Robert Morin of the Superior Court of D.C. ruled from the bench that the government, under the court's supervision, can proceed with an amended search warrant for data requested from DreamHost on the website disruptj20.org, which was used to organize protests against Trump on Inauguration Day.
However, Morin outlined what he described as "added protections" to guard the data of innocent visitors to the website. He directed the government to submit information to the court about its method for searching through the data and minimizing data on innocent third-party visitors to the site.
The government is seeking the data in connection with the ongoing investigation into the rioting that occurred on Inauguration Day.
Morin couched his order as an attempt to balance First Amendment protections with the government's need for the information on the website.
It is unclear whether DreamHost will appeal the order. Lawyers for the web hosting company told reporters following the opening hearing that they would review the transcript and make a decision in the near future.
The judge declined to grant a stay until DreamHost decides whether or not to appeal, saying that the company should begin providing the requested information to the government. The government should not begin reviewing it, he said, until DreamHost decides whether to appeal.
The case has inflamed debate over law enforcement access to electronic data, spurring concerns among privacy and civil liberties advocates. DreamHost publicized a search warrant from the government last week for data and information related to the website, saying that it would amount to turning over 1.3 million visitor IP addresses to the website.
Earlier this week, the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. asked to modify the warrant, specifying that it is not interested in obtaining the 1.3 million visitor IP addresses or information that could constitute a violation of the Privacy Protection Act. The revised warrant, lawyers with the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. argued Thursday, is sufficiently particular about the information that the government is allowed seize from the requested data - only that which constitutes evidence of a violation of D.C. criminal code governing rioting.
However, DreamHost says that merely having to turn over the information to the government raises First and Fourth Amendment concerns and could have chilling effects on free speech and political discourse.
While the company's lawyers describe the exclusion of the IP addresses as a win, they maintain that the warrant would still allow the government to obtain email lists and correspondence between managers of the website and certain third parties, which would reveal their contact information and content of email messages.
"We think that having the government review the records, having the government have access to the information of the public and as the court has deemed, the innocent third-party users, having them see that information and identify who these political dissidents were is problematic," Raymond Aghaian, a lawyer for DreamHost, told reporters outside the courthouse in Washington.
"When it comes to sensitive First Amendment issues such as this one, it should not be the case where the government gets to rummage through material to determine whether something is valid or not," Aghaian said.
While allowing the government to move forward, Morin ordered the government to disclose the names of law enforcement officers who will sift through the data, the process they will use, and their minimization procedures for protecting data on innocent visitors to the site.
The judge also said that the government will need to provide two sets of data to the court: one specifying the data not covered by the warrant to be sealed and not reviewed in the future, and another of the data seized and why it constitutes evidence of crime.