Coalition: Justice Department’s demand for protest website data raises privacy and civil liberty concerns

Today, a broad coalition of over 70 public interest organizations sent a letter to the Attorney General expressing concern over the Justice Department’s demand for information associated with a protest-organizing website. While the Justice Department, in the face of mounting public pressure, has significantly narrowed its initial demand for data on every individual who visited the site, concerns remain over the fact that the government issued such a sweeping request in the first place – and that it continues to maintain that this request was legal and appropriate. Additionally, the information yielded by this demand could still allow the government to identify individuals engaged in constitutionally protected speech and dissent, as well as members of the news media and the public who simply participated in meetings or communicated with organizers whose email accounts are affiliated with the protest website.

In July, the Justice Department filed a motion with the D.C. Superior Court to compel the website provider DreamHost to comply with a search warrant seeking company records and information associated with the website According to the response filed by DreamHost, complying with this request would have amounted to handing over roughly 1.3 million visitor IP addresses to the government, in addition to contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of visitors to the website. Two days before a scheduled hearing on the case, in the face of mounting public pressure, the Department narrowed its demand for information related to the website. In a new court filing, federal prosecutors dropped the request for visitor logs and limited the timeframe for part of the demand from July 2016 through Inauguration Day.

The website in question was used as a platform for providing and exchanging information about a range of protests planned for the week leading up to Inauguration Day and the Women’s March the following day. The site continued to provide descriptions and photographs of the protest events, along with information about the arrests of some demonstrators. The Justice Department has asserted that the website was used in the “development, planning, advertisement, and organization of a violent riot” it says took place during the Inauguration. Although a number of individuals have been charged with crimes for their alleged roles in the incidents that took place on January 20th, lawyers representing the defendants have raised concerns that those associated with organizing the inauguration day protests, including individuals who were not arrested the day of the protests, have been targeted on the basis of their political affiliation. In one highly publicized case, DC police raided the home of an activist who was not arrested on January 20th, but currently faces felony charges for incidents that took place on Inauguration Day.

“It is a testament to the public response that the government has significantly scaled back its alarmingly broad demand for all data associated with the protest website,” according to Lisa Rosenberg, Executive Director of OpenTheGovernment. “Nevertheless, this case makes clear we must continue to be on the lookout for executive branch overreach and government efforts to gather information on individuals merely because they engage in dissent and political organizing, constitutionally protected activities fundamental to our democracy.”

Read the letter here