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In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, police fire pepper spray at protestors during a demonstration in downtown after the inauguration of President Donald Trump. U.S. prosecutors are trying to force a company to turn over what it says is a vast amount of information related to a website used to organize Inauguration Day protests that turned destructive. (Photo: AP/John Minchillo, File)

The U.S. Department of Justice has issued a search warrant for internet records possessed by web hosting service DreamHost regarding a 2017 Inauguration Day protest website, after about 200 were arrested in relation to the Jan. 20 event. The warrant and subsequent court filings came to light in a blog post by DreamHost yesterday, in which the company called the government’s demand “a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.”

The information requested by the DOJ would include the IP addresses of over 1.3 million visitors to the site, DreamHost said, information that “could be used to identify any individual who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment,” the post states. DreamHost published the warrant, a motion to show cause filed by federal prosecutors after DreamHost raised concerns about the warrant, and DreamHost’s response in opposition to the motion.

The website at the center of the legal battle is disruptj20.org, a website that helped organize protests of the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on Jan. 20, 2017. The website provided resources for protesting—such as printable posters, lists of tactics and tools for protesting, training materials for nonviolent civil disobedience and more—and also currently hosts a legal support page and legal fund for arrested protestors as well as photographs and news about the demonstrations.

Over 200 people were arrested and indicted on charges of felony rioting after some demonstrators at the event broke store windows, threw rocks at police and set a limousine on fire, according to the New York Times. But DreamHost says, in its opposition to the government’s motion, that “innocent third parties who viewed or communicated with the website” would be caught within the scope of the DOJ’s warrant, amounting to endangerment of their First Amendment rights.

“It is not difficult to anticipate the impact this disclosure will have on the willingness of third parties to investigate and engage with web sites of political organizations,” their opposition states.

One of DreamHost’s arguments against the warrant is that it lacks the “particularity” required by the Fourth Amendment, requesting a large swath of information to be disclosed and potentially seized without mentioning specific targets, such as specific users of the site. The search warrant requires DreamHost to disclose all records and information related to the disruptj20.org website—including files, code and logs DreamHost says can be used to determine specific pages users viewed and even identify software running on users’ computers—as well as information that could identify users of the site, including names, email addresses, physical addresses, phone numbers and payment information.

By not naming specific users or a specific timeframe of records to be included, the warrant violates the Fourth Amendment and endangers the First Amendment, DreamHost counsel argues. They also argue that the warrant violates the Privacy Protection Act, because much of the information included in the warrant could constitute “work products” or “documentary materials” protected by the act, and that the location where the records are electronically stored, in Oregon, falls outside the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia.

In its earlier motion for DreamHost to show cause, D.C. U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips pointed out that, from the information that DreamHost discloses, the government will only seize, as stated in the search warrant, information “that constitutes fruits, evidence and instrumentalities of violations of (the D.C. rioting code) involving the individuals who participated, planed (sic), organized, or incited the January 20 riot.” The motion states that DreamHost’s concerns about potential “overseizure,” as expressed in an earlier email to federal prosecutors by DreamHost counsel, is not an acceptable basis for refusing to comply with the warrant, and that the warrant does not violate the Privacy Protection Act or jurisdictional limitations.

“The Court’s search warrant identifies the precise categories of information that DreamHost must provide to the government and the precise limitations on the information that the government may seize during its search,” the motion states. “The PPA does not as a factual matter preclude the government from searching and seizing electronic information—even ‘protected’ materials—pursuant to a search warrant.”

In an email to Forensic Magazine, a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for D.C. said the office has no comment on the issue and provided a copy of their filing. The representative also said a hearing on the matter, originally scheduled to occur on Aug. 18 before D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Lynn Leibovitz, will be rescheduled to a later, yet undetermined date, and will instead be before D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin.

Other internet and computer companies have fought search warrants for electronic information in the past, including Google, which objected to the broadness of a warrant requesting information on everyone who Googled a crime victim’s name; Microsoft, which argued emails requested by a warrant were stored on a server in Ireland, and therefore out of the warrant’s reach; and Amazon, which argued a warrant for audio information from a voice-activated Echo device present during a murder violated the device owner's First Amendment rights.

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