Can the U.S. Government Seize an Anti-Trump Website's Visitor Logs?

Protesters hold signs during a protest march against President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Seattle.

Protesters hold signs during a protest march against President Donald Trump, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Seattle. Ted S. Warren/AP

The Department of Justice is seeking the 1.3 million IP addresses that accessed a website advertising Inauguration Day protests.

Suppose you were to click on this link: This one, right here.

It will take you to the website of Disrupt J20, which organized some of the “direct action” protests on the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. The site contains general information about civil disobedience and political protests, and it advertises several Washington-specific events.

Some of the protests on Inauguration Day turned violent, and the U.S. government has since charged more than 200 people with felony rioting or destruction of property in connection to events on January 20. It alleges that some of the suspects were connected to the Disrupt J20 effort.

Yet if you clicked that link above—even if you were nowhere near Washington on Inauguration Day—the government is now allegedly interested in you.

The U.S. Department of Justice is attempting to seize the visitor logs and IP addresses of anyone who has visited DisruptJ20.org, as well as any email addresses, user logs, and photos collected by the website, according to DreamHost, a Los Angeles–based web host and domain-name registrar.

This data encompasses more than 1.3 million IP addresses, as well as the email addresses and photos of thousands of people, the company said. DreamHost is not politically connected to DisruptJ20, but it provided paid web-hosting services for the group.

DreamHost has so far refused to comply with the government’s search warrant, arguing that it constitutes “investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.”

“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,” said a blog post published to the company’s website on Monday.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia did not respond before publication. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.

Digital-privacy and civil-rights advocates were quick to criticize the scope of the government’s warrant. But experts in computer crime law said it wasn’t immediately obvious that the warrant was illegal.

“The Department of Justice isn’t just seeking communications by the defendants in its case. It’s seeking the records of every single contact with the site—the IP address and other details of every American opposed enough to Trump to visit the site and explore political activism,” wrote Ken White, a criminal-defense lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney.

He continued:

The government has made no effort whatsoever to limit the warrant to actual evidence of any particular crime. If you visited the site, if you left a message, they want to know who and where you are—whether or not you did anything but watch TV on inauguration day. This is chilling, particularly when it comes from an administration that has expressed so much overt hostility to protesters, so relentlessly conflated all protesters with those who break the law, and so deliberately framed America as being at war with the administration’s domestic enemies.

“No plausible explanation exists for a search warrant of this breadth, other than to cast a digital dragnet as broadly as possible,” said Mark Rumold, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a blog post. The EFF is assisting DreamHost in its opposition to the warrant.

“The Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit fishing expeditions like this. Those concerns are especially relevant here, where [the Department of Justice] is investigating a website that served as a hub for the planning and exercise of First Amendment–protected activities,” he said.

In an email, Rumold added that the government had successfully seized visitor logs for other websites in the past. “But I’ve never seen anything on this scale, where we’re talking about millions of users and there’s no attempt whatsoever to narrow the scope (either by date, time, or user),” he told me.

“I don’t think there are precedents one way or another on this,” Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, told me.

“It’s not obvious to me whether the warrant is problematic,” he elaborated in an article at The Washington Post. The government’s search warrant instructs DreamHost to turn over all its records about DisruptJ20.org. As Kerr understands it, DreamHost wants the government to only legally be able to ask for certain records about the website. He continues:

There’s an interesting and unresolved issue presented here: What’s the correct level of particularity for a website? Courts have allowed the government to get a suspect’s entire email account, which the government can then search through for evidence. But is the collective set of records concerning a website itself so extensive that it goes beyond what the Fourth Amendment allows? In the physical world, the government can search only one apartment in an apartment building with a single warrant; it can’t search the entire apartment building. Are the collective records of a website more like an apartment building or a single apartment? I don’t know of any caselaw on this.

A hearing in D.C. Superior Court is scheduled for Friday.

President Trump has addressed the January 20 protests directly at least twice. Two days after they occurred, he belittled them and the Women’s March, on January 21, in a tweet: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election!” he said. “Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt cause badly.”

Two hours later, he tweeted an addendum: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views.”

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.