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DOJ backs off demand for info on 1.3M visitors to anti-Trump site

It's the second time in just a few months that the federal government has requested user information from websites and then backed down.

by Noah Kulwin
Aug 23 2017, 10:58am

The Department of Justice is backing down from its stunning demand that a web-hosting service turn over information on 1.3 million visitors to an anti-Trump website.

In a Tuesday filing, U.S. Attorney Channing Phillips said the government would no longer need DreamHost to reveal “all” visitors to the disruptj20.org website. It’s the second time in a few months that the federal government has requested user information from websites about users critical of the Trump administration. It’s also the second time the government has pulled back.

“Much of the DOJ’s original demand for information is still in place, and there are still a few issues that we consider to be problematic, for a number of reasons,” DreamHost said in a company blog post after the government updated its filing. “We are moving forward with a filing to address the remaining First and Fourth Amendment issues raised by this warrant.”

Phillips claims in the updated filing that disruptj20.org “was used to organize a riot” on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration and that the government’s warrant is “focused on evidence of the planning” of a “premeditated riot.” More than 200 protesters were arrested in Washington on Inauguration Day, which prompted an ACLU lawsuit against the D.C. police.

The Justice Department first obtained a search warrant for the disuptj20.org visitor information in mid-July. Widespread public scrutiny followed.

DreamHost, which is getting legal assistance from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is scheduled to discuss its objections to the search warrant in a hearing in Washington on Thursday. The Foundation lawyer assisting with the case, Mark Rumold, did not immediately respond to a VICE News request for comment, although he told Gizmodo on Tuesday night that “before [the updated filing,] it was more or less a dragnet and a witch hunt, and now it’s just a witch hunt.”

More broadly, the Trump administration has taken a tough stance with both its critics and the technology services that they use. The DreamHost warrant brings to mind an April case involving Twitter, in which the government also doubled back after making a request that civil liberties advocates widely considered overbroad.

After a number of “alt-” government agency accounts surfaced on Twitter — some of which claimed to be operated by anti-Trump members of the executive branch — the Department of Homeland Security demanded that Twitter reveal the identity whoever operates the “@ALT_USCIS” account. Less than a day after Twitter filed a lawsuit contesting the request, government lawyers dropped the summons.