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Judge: DoJ Cannot 'Rummage Through' Info on Anti-Trump Website Visitors

In what proponents are touting as a win for personal privacy and peaceful dissent as a legitimate First Amendment exercise, a judge has ruled that the Department of Justice in the US has no legal ability to seek the identities of visitors to an anti-Trump website.

Over the summer, US authorities filed legal action to compel DreamHost to hand over details on 1.3 million visitors to a website called www.disruptj20.org, which was launched to protest the Administration.

In August, the hosting firm went public with the proceedings and explained in a blog post:

“The request from the DOJ demands that DreamHost hand over 1.3 million visitor IP addresses — in addition to contact information, email content and photos of thousands of people — in an effort to determine who simply visited the website. (Our customer has also been notified of the pending warrant on the account.) That information could be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind. This is, in our opinion, a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.”

Less than two weeks later, the DoJ narrowed its request, and clarified that it was specifically looking for those who planned and took part in a January 20 demonstration to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration. The department has branded this a “premeditated riot”—although no one was arrested or charged in the incident.

It also said that it would not use the data to target political activists.

The DC Superior Court however has now sided with the web hosting provider, decreeing that 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. DreamHost will however be compelled to turn over data pertaining to specific individuals that the court deems are subject to the DoJ’s probable cause-based warrant. In other words, everyday web visitors are safe from government surveillance, but those brought up on legitimate charges are not.

“Chief Judge Morin issued his final order today, and we’re happy to see significant changes that will protect the constitutional rights of innocent internet users,” said DreamHost General Counsel Christopher Ghazarian, in an emailed statement. “Under this order, we can redact all identifying information and protect the identities of users who interacted with disruptj20.org. We applaud Chief Judge Morin for acknowledging that the government ‘does not have the right to rummage through the information contained on DreamHost’s website’ to ‘discover the identity of… individuals not participating in alleged criminal activity.’”

They added that the new order is a far cry from the original warrant the web hoster received in July.

There are also quite a few modifications that further reduce the government’s ability to review unrelated data. This is another huge win not just for DreamHost, but for internet users around the world.

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