A judge ruled Thursday that web hosting company DreamHost must turn over data from an Inauguration Day protest website to federal prosecutors looking to find evidence against people charged with rioting during the event.
D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert Morin said there would be safeguards in place to address First Amendment concerns raised by the company, which said it was “problematic” to turn over such sensitive information.
As a result of the ruling, investigators will be able to review emails related to the website DisruptJ20.org and identify those who sent and received communications through the domain.
But the judge, who ruled from the bench, ordered the government to abide by strict rules to minimize the collection of information about individuals who communicated through the website but committed no crime.
“I am going to be supervising their search,” Judge Morin told the lawyers.
The Justice Department said it’s no longer looking for casual visitors to the website, but rather for information on those who planned to riot in Washington, D.C. during President Trump’s inauguration. More than 200 people were arrested after vandals smashed storefront windows, destroyed property, and set fires in downtown Washington.
“We are interested in seizing only evidence of a crime,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Borchert at Thursday’s hearing.
DreamHost’s lawyers compared the government’s approach to obtaining a warrant for an entire apartment building and searching every unit in the complex. Raymond Aghaian, one of the company’s lawyers, said the government should be more specific in its requests.
“Having them see that information and see who these political dissidents were is problematic,” Mr. Aghaian said after Thursday’s ruling.
Judge Morin sought alternatives, but ultimately ruled that DreamHost must turn over all information that prosecutors sought in the revised search warrant.
That includes data stored on DreamHost for the DisruptJ20 website from Oct. 1 through Jan. 20, any communications related to the planning and carrying out of crimes committed during the inauguration, and identifying information for those involved.
The government would be able to review all the data to determine what information was responsive to their search warrant and relevant to the criminal cases at hand. But the judge will require that the government file reports with the court justifying why they believe information is or is not responsive to the warrant.
All information the government deems unresponsive to the warrant will be filed under seal with the court and the government will be unable to access it without further order by the court.
Mr. Aghaian said the company will consider an appeal.
Judge Morin said DreamHost will have to begin supplying data, but the government won’t be allowed to begin searching it until DreamHost decides whether to appeal.
DreamHost had initially balked at a much broader search warrant obtained by the Justice Department, arguing that it would have required the company to turn over the IP addresses of more than 1.3 million users who visited the website. After publicly announcing their intention to fight the warrant, the Justice Department revised its request to narrow the scope of information sought.
But the fact that the Justice Department still considers its initial broad request “lawful and appropriate” worries a broad coalition of advocacy groups that the department might seek similar warrants in the future. The groups wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to complain.
“Given that the government narrowed the scope of its demand only after DreamHost challenged the warrant in court, resulting in widespread public outcry and objection from privacy and civil liberties groups, questions remain over whether similar warrants exist that are not receiving the same level of public scrutiny generated by the DreamHost case,” wrote the coalition of groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Citizen, National Lawyers Guild and Brennan Center for Justice.
In what appeared to be a coincidental series of events, DreamHost’s servers came under cyberattack shortly after the ruling was issued Thursday. The company reported a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack that affected websites the company hosts.
The hacker collective Anonymous took credit for the attack, posting in messages online that the company was targeted for attack because it hosted the white supremacist website Daily Stormer. The website has been booted from a number of domains in recent weeks as a result of pressure to crack down on racist views following the violence that broke out this month at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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