Government warrant threatens privacy and free speech of all web users

Government warrant threatens privacy and free speech of all web users

Regardless of your political views or web surfing habits, you should be concerned that the Justice Department got a warrant to require a web hosting company to turn over information on people who visited an anti-Trump protest site. It could have a chilling effect on both personal privacy and freedom of speech for people of all or no political persuasions.

Last month, federal investigators convinced a judge to order DreamHost to turn over the internet protocol (IP) addresses and other information from more than 1.3 million people who visited, a site that helped promote inauguration day demonstrations in the nation’s capital. In addition to the thousands of people who protested peacefully that day, there were a relatively small number of people who broke windows, set a limousine on fire, threw rocks at police and, in one case, “sucker punched” prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer.

In a blog post,  DreamHost said, that it is “approached by law enforcement regularly to provide information about customers who may be the subject of criminal investigations,” and that its legal department “reviews and scrutinizes each request and, when necessary, rejects and challenges vague or faulty orders.”

In addition to contact information, the warrant, according to DreamHost, would also have them turn over “email content, and photos of thousands people” who visited the website.

While it’s certainly possible that some of the people who visited the site might have been among the 214 people who have been indicted on felony charges, it’s pretty obvious that most of the 1.3 million people whose records are being sought probably weren’t even in Washington D.C. that day.

While I’m all for law enforcement and prosecutors having the tools they need to bring law breakers to justice, I worry about the “fishing expeditions” that can ensnare innocent people whose only crime was wanting to access information. And I worry not just on behalf of liberals but of people of all persuasions.

I would also extend the same concern for those who may have visited the overtly racist neo-Nazi Daily Caller site, either before or even after it had to re-register as a Russian domain once its registrar, GoDaddy, canceled service because it published a derogatory article about slain Charlottesville counter protester Heather Hyer.

In fact, as part of research I was doing on a story, I visited that site several times last week, even though I find its views detestable. If the government decides to investigate the site’s role in the Charlottesville attacks, should I worry that I might be implicated simply because I visited the site? It’s not out of the question. GoDaddy, which was the registrar when I visited, could get the same type of warrant that was served on DreamHost. And, as detestable as those views are, I would extend the same concern for privacy and free speech to non-journalists who may have been curious or even sympathetic to its views if all they did was visit the site.

Having said that, I applaud GoDaddy for pulling the plug on Daily Stormer. The first amendment applies to the government, not private companies, and it is within GoDaddy’s right to terminate a relationship with a site that it finds reprehensible, but I would hope that GoDaddy would fight any order turning over this site’s visitor logs, should the government investigate its role.

In fairness to the DOJ, its worth quoting Orin Kerr, a professor at The George Washington University Law School, from an opinion piece he wrote in the Washington Post, arguing “Dreamhost is only involved in the initial search stage of a two-stage warrant.” He said that “First, the government gets access to all the electronic records. Next, the government searches through the records for the particularly described evidence” and that “Courts have broadly allowed the government to follow this two-step procedure.”

But, even if professor Kerr is correct, it brings up the issue of how that data might be used, especially when you consider that the data could provide the government with information about citizens who might have political views that differ from those of the current administration.

In an interview, Stephanie Lacambra, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (, which is supporting DreamHost’s objection to the warrant, said that if the government does eventually gain access to these logs, it “brings up data retention” including how long the government holds onto the information and whether the DOJ should be allowed to share the data with other branches of government. She also said that a hearing on the matter, which was supposed to take place on Friday, has been postponed.

“After all the press coverage,” she said, “the DOJ may have realized that there is a miscalculation,” and they may go back to the negotiating table to see if they can reach an agreement with DreamHost to obtain a more limited subset of the information.

Those who participated non-violent civil disobedience during the inauguration surely knew they could be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor as Dr. Martin Luther King was on multiple occasions. Those who were caught being violent or destroying property should have expected to be charged with felonies. And those who demonstrated peacefully should know they have no expectation of privacy when out in public. But those who simply exercised their right to obtain information online should have their privacy respected.

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Published at Thu, 17 Aug 2017 15:00:12 +0000