Internet hosting company DreamHost is battling the U.S. Justice Department over requests for information about people visiting a Web site for organizing protests. Larry Greenemeier reports.
Internet companies often receive requests by law enforcement for customer info to help with ongoing investigations. Rarely, however, will a court order hit up a Web hosting company for upwards of 1.3 million IP addresses—to find out who’s been visiting a particular Web site.
That’s exactly what happened recently when the U.S. Justice Department tried to get the company DreamHost to turn over contact info, e-mails, photos and data related to a Web site called DisruptJ20. DisruptJ20 has been involved in organizing protests against the Trump administration.
DreamHost bristled at the court order and filed an appeal. Company special counsel Chris Ghazarian told me that DreamHost rarely gets requests to turn over that much client information. IP addresses, in particular, can identify which computers visited a site, when they visited, what they viewed and for how long. IP addresses can also be used to reveal a Web user’s identity.
The Justice Department later revised its request, saying it was not going to force DreamHost to turn over text and photos from blog posts written but never posted to DisruptJ20.
A Washington, D.C., Superior Court then further amended the government’s request. The judge asked the Justice Department to list the names of all government investigators who will have access to DreamHost’s data and to explain how it will search through the data to gather evidence against Trump dissenters. Justice is also barred from sharing the information with other government agencies.
We’ll see whether the government ends up prosecuting anyone using DreamHost’s data. If that happens it could drive digital civil disobedience to encrypted mobile apps or possibly the Dark web, a largely uncharted online realm where it’s easier to remain anonymous.
That would raise disturbing questions about the state of citizens’ First Amendment rights in the U.S. these days.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]