Government Can Search Inauguration Protest Website Records, With Safeguards
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now a court decision in a case that pits president Trump's Justice Department against a web hosting company whose services were used by anti-Trump activists. The company DreamHost challenged the U.S. government over what it saw as an excessive request for information. Well, today a federal judge sided mostly with the government but not entirely. And here to walk us through this case is NPR's Camila Domonoske. Hiya.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hi. How are you?
SIEGEL: This story's a bit complicated, so remind us how it began.
DOMONOSKE: So back before the inauguration, this website disruptj20.org was organizing protests. And then on the day of the inauguration, more than 200 people were arrested, charged with felony rioting. Nearly 200 of those cases are still pending. And the Department of Justice has asked for records relating to that website - lot of data from DreamHost, the company that hosted the website. And they have resisted. They've challenged that in court.
SIEGEL: Yeah. Last week, our co-host Audie Cornish spoke with the CEO of DreamHost, and he said that the company's objection to the warrant wasn't political. So what is the problem with the request?
DOMONOSKE: Well, they had real concerns about privacy and free speech. Initially DreamHost was particularly concerned about the fact that the request from the government would require them to disclose 1.3 million IP addresses. And you could use that information to get some information about the visitors to the website. So they fought that really fiercely. And earlier this week, the Department of Justice decided to narrow its request and no longer seek those visitor logs.
SIEGEL: Why did they agree to do that?
DOMONOSKE: Well, the Department of Justice said that they didn't realize how much information DreamHost had, so they didn't know how much they were asking for. Lawyers for DreamHost are a little skeptical of that explanation. They say that they told the Department of Justice very early on what this meant.
SIEGEL: Well, in that case, what is the issue now?
DOMONOSKE: Well, there's still a lot of data that the government is asking permission to look through, including email accounts associated with the organization. And they're asking for the ability to search through, find what's significant and then basically set the rest of this information aside. Now, lawyers for DreamHost say that's still problematic. I talked to Raymond Aghaian.
RAYMOND AGHAIAN: The fact that an FBI agent will be sitting there and actually reviewing and reading the emails and knowing who this person is is the issue in and of itself.
DOMONOSKE: Basically before they can decide that something's not relevant to a court case, you still have the Department of Justice looking at it. And DreamHost says that that could have a chilling effect on speech.
SIEGEL: And presented with these problems, what did the judge decide?
DOMONOSKE: Basically he said that DreamHost should hand over that big pool of data to the government and let the government search through it to find the evidence that it's looking for. But at the same time, the judge said that there are serious concerns about privacy and free speech. And as a result, the Department of Justice has to come up with some procedures to minimize the exposure of, quote, "innocent users." That's what the judge called them.
We don't know exactly what that would look like. And in the meantime, DreamHost is supposed to hand over all of this data to the government, and the Department of Justice will wait until they've got the go-ahead to actually filter through it. Lawyers for DreamHost are evaluating their options. That includes a possible appeal. The Department of Justice won't comment on a pending case.
SIEGEL: NPR's Camila Domonoske, thanks.
DOMONOSKE: Thank you.