WASHINGTON – District of Columbia Superior Court judge on Thursday approved a government warrant seeking data from an anti-Trump website related to Inauguration Day protests, but he added protections to safeguard “innocent users.”
Chief Judge Robert Morin said DreamHost, a Los Angeles-based web-hosting company, must turn over data about visitors to the website disruptj20.org, which is a home to political activists who organized protests at the time of Donald Trump’s inauguration as U.S. president in January.
Morin, who will oversee review of the data, said the government must explain what protocols it will use to make sure prosecutors do not seize the data of “innocent users.”
The U.S. Justice Department said it sought the records connected to the site because of concerns that it helped facilitate the planning of protests on Inauguration Day, when more than 200 people were arrested for rioting and vandalizing businesses in downtown Washington.
DreamHost resisted the request, saying the scope of the warrant was too broad and trampled on the rights of 1.3 million visitors to the site, many of whom were simply expressing their political views.
The Justice Department last week proposed amending the scope of its warrant to exclude the IP addresses of website visitors and limit the search only to records from July 1, 2016, to the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day.
But DreamHost said the warrant was still too broad, as it could sweep in people who sent emails to disruptj20 addresses. The company objected to the two-step process that would require it to turn over data in bulk and let prosecutors search for and seize evidence of criminal involvement in the riots.
Morin said at a hearing on Thursday that he recognized the tension between free speech rights and law enforcement’s need to search digital records for evidence. He said he added safeguards to his order granting the government’s request for information in an effort to balance those two concerns.
Besides reviewing the prosecutors’ privacy protocols, Morin also shortened the time frame for records to those generated from October to Inauguration Day and instructed the prosecutors to explain why anything they want to seize is germane to the investigation.
“It’s a tremendous step in terms of further limiting what the government can do,” said Raymond Aghaian, DreamHost’s lawyer.
But the company still has concerns about the chilling effect of data being turned over for government review and is considering an appeal, Aghaian said.