SAN FRANCISCO – In the digital age, there apparently is no place to hide.
For weeks, the Justice Department has demanded a web-hosting service hand over the IP addresses of more than 1.3 million visitors to a website that organized protests of President Trump’s inauguration. Additionally, it requested contact information, email and photos of thousands of people.
The DOJ filed the motion July 20 against disruptj20.org, a self-described group of activists who planned “mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump,” according to DreamHost, the Los Angeles-based web host that is legally fighting the government’s request.
In its filing, the government claims disruptj20.org “was used in the development, planning, advertisement and organization of a violent riot” on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
Violence and clashes with the police erupted in the nation’s capital that day as bands of protesters, some wielding crowbars and hammers and throwing bricks and trash containers, broke off from the peaceful protests as President Trump was sworn into office. The violence resulted in 217 arrests for rioting, injuries to six police officers and smashed store windows, ATMs and cars.
It’s not clear what information the Justice Department is seeking about those involved. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia declined further comment.
Law enforcement agencies frequently seek information on users and activity from tech companies, which often fight these requests when they view the demands as too large or too broad.
In this case, the Justice Department’s suit is notable for its size and the fact that it seeks information on any visitor to the site.
DreamHost, which filed arguments opposing the DoJ’s request on Aug. 11, called it “a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority” in a blog post Monday. The two sides are scheduled to attend a hearing in Washington, D.C., court on Friday.
“Typically, the government issues subpoenas to (DreamHost and other web services),” says Raymond Aghaian, author of the brief supporting DreamHost. “What is not common is requesting information about visitors to web sites… about political content… and free speech.”
“This is problematic,” says Aghaian, a former federal prosecutor who says he has never seen such a request. “There are tremendous privacy issues.”
The filing, which includes a search warrant, has sparked a wave of protest from privacy advocates, who call it “chilling” and an effort by the government to intimidate online platforms that allow dissent.
“Web services are often contacted for narrowly-tailored actions against 10 to 15 people for criminal activity, but this is particularly odd,” says Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at Center for Democracy & Technology, a nonprofit organization that advocates for privacy and security online.
“This is clearly an act of intimidation to punish platforms to allow dissent; it is antithetical to free speech,” Hall says.
Representatives from disruptj20.org were not immediately available for comment. In January, Samantha Miller, a key organizer around the #DisruptJ20 group, told USA TODAY “it’s our role and the role of any people of conscience to try to disrupt his inaugural and have a massive show of resistance.”
One of the site’s visitors, who did not attend the inauguration, said he visited for information. “There was no call for violence or social unrest on the site,” says Tom Wellborn, 49, an information-technology worker in Haddonfield, N.J.
Meanwhile, activists online are posting photos and names to “out” white supremacists who participated in Saturday’s deadly Charlottesville, Va., march on Saturday.
“Bigotry thrives on silence,” Logan Smith, organizer of @yesyoureracist, a Twitter account — it has about 375,000 followers — on which he identifies facists, neo-Nazis and other hate groups, told MSNBC.
© 2017 USATODAY.COM