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DOJ Backs Down From Overbroad J20 Warrant. But Problems Still Remain

J20 Protestors by James McNellis

The government has backed down significantly in its fight with DreamHost about information related to the J20 protests. Late on Tuesday, DOJ filed a reply in its much publicized (and much criticized) attempt to get the hosting provider to turn over a large amount of data about a website it was hosting, disruptj20.org—a site that was dedicated to organizing and planning protests in Washington, D.C. on the day of President Trump's inauguration.

In the brief, DOJ substantially reduces the amount of information it is seeking. It also specifically excludes some information from its demand, including some of the most obvious examples of overreach.

DOJ initially demanded that DreamHost turn over nearly 1.3 IP addresses on visitors to the site. Millions of visitors—activists, reporters, or anyone who just wanted to check out the site—would have records of their visits turned over to the government. The warrant also sought production of all emails associated with the account and unpublished content, like draft blog posts and photos.

The new warrant parameters exclude most visitor logs from the demand, set a temporal limit for records from July 1, 2016 to January 20, 2017, and also withdraw the demand for unpublished content, like draft blog posts and photos. This was a sensible response on DOJ's part—both legally and politically.

But the new warrant is not without its flaws. First, it's not clear from either the warrant itself or the facts of the case whether DOJ is ordering DreamHost to turn over information on one account or multiple accounts. At a minimum, DOJ should be required to specify which accounts are subject to the order. More fundamentally, DOJ is still investigating a website that was dedicated to organizing and planning political dissent and protest. That is activity at the heart of the First Amendment's protection. If, as DOJ claims, it has no interest in encroaching on protected political activity and organizing, then it should allow a third-party—like a judge, a special master, or a taint team—to review the information produced by DreamHost before it is turned over to the government. Anything less threatens to cast a further shadow on the legitimacy of this investigation.

The hearing in this case is scheduled for Thursday, August 24, 2017, at 10 a.m.
Courtroom 315 — Chief Judge Robert E. Morin
Superior Court of the District of Columbia
500 Indiana Ave NW, Washington D.C., 20001

Update: Judge orders Dreamhost to comply with DOJ's narrowed warrant.

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