DreamHost Fights to Limit DOJ Request for Website Visitor Information

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DreamHost filed legal arguments Friday in opposition to a request by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) for personally identifiable information, including IP addresses, for 1.3 million website visits, according to an announcement on the company’s blog.

DreamHost is the host of website disruptj20.org, which was dedicated to organizing protests during the inauguration of President Donald Trump on January 20. It received a grand jury subpoena soon after the inauguration and protests, and complied by providing the government with information about the website owner.

In July, the DOJ issuing a search warrant (PDF) to DreamHost seeking visitor logs, contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people from the website. The company calls this attempt “a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority” in the blog post, and challenged the request in inquiries to the DOJ. The DOJ responded by filing a motion (PDF) to compel the host to comply with the warrant.

DreamHost received 466 requests for information from governments in 2014, and VP of Brand & Community Brett Dunst told the WHIR that the number of requests the company receives from law enforcement is reasonably consistent from year to year. The motion for disruptj20.org data is different from most law enforcement requests in procedure and scope, according to Dunst.

“It is unusual because the motion to compel came after we had basically asked for clarification. We had said we considered it overly broad, and why. Rather than coming back to us with an explanation they served us with this motion to compel,” says Dunst. “When we receive these types of requests for information from law enforcement, the request typically is limited to the customer with the account, and they may request some information about the data stored on the account. This request is different from those.”

According to the opposition motion filed by DreamHost (PDF), the DOJ “not only aims to identify the political dissidents of the current administration, but attempts to identify and understand what content each of these dissidents viewed on the website.” DreamHost claims that the search warrant is invalid for several reasons, including that it violates the Privacy Protection Act.

DreamHost has previously spoken out in support of net neutrality. 

Mark Rumold, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is advising DreamHost on the matter, told the Guardian that the website is engaged in “the type of advocacy the first amendment was designed to protect and promote,” and as such is “unconstitutional.”

The Internet Infrastructure Coalition (i2Coalition) issued a statement in support of DreamHost on Tuesday.

“This warrant is one example of a significant, and disturbing, trend, of sweeping government requests to Internet Infrastructure providers for all manner of data related to their services. The Constitution requires that warrants be narrowly tailored and limited in their scope. The warrant broadly identifies a website address, and then requests ‘all records or other information pertaining to that (address).’ The term ‘all records’ includes information that would identify visitors to the website regardless of the nature of their visit. It would also include email processed by DreamHost related to the website, again regardless of the nature of the email, or relation to the violence that is the subject of the investigation,” said i2Coalition Co-Founder, Policy and Board Chair David Snead.

“Aside from the business impact that this warrant will have on DreamHost, broad, poorly crafted warrants have significant free speech implications. These warrants also drive business from U.S. companies by reinforcing the perception that the U.S. government does not consider the privacy implications of its actions. We strongly support DreamHost in its efforts to narrow the scope of this warrant.”

“The content of this particular request just happens to be very political in nature, so its garnering a lot of attention, but the way we approach these types of cases is pretty consistent,” Dunst says. “We look at the validity of the records request, who’s making the request, are they authorized to make that request, do they even work in law enforcement. We take all records requests extremely seriously and we don’t just comply with them without doing our own due diligence to make sure they’re valid.”

Twitter was ordered by Customs and Border Patrol to provide user information for the account ALT_USCIS in March. The company filed suit to avoid doing so, and the order was withdrawn.

DreamHost and the DOJ will present their cases to the D.C. Superior Court on Friday.

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One Comment

  1. Mike Frisco

    This is an insane request from the government. I'm not even a lawyer and I know this is bad.Why is Dreamhost the only host that ever takes any kind of stand on these things? Makes me glad I have a few sites there. Thinking of moving my clients there soon.

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