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Justice Department Pulls Back on Search Warrant for Visitors to Trump-Protest Site

The federal government backpedaled Tuesday after its request for data about visitors to an anti-Trump website was slammed as a broad violation of free speech protections.

"The government values and respects the First Amendment right of all Americans to participate in peaceful political protests and to read protected political expression online," federal prosecutors said in a supplemental filing in D.C. Superior Court, which asked a judge to let it amend a search warrant it filed last month.

The warrant was filed against DreamHost, the web hosting company for Disrupt20.org, a group of activists who organized protests that led to the arrests of more than 200 people during Donald Trump's inauguration as president in January.

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The initial warrant sought information on DreamHost servers about all visitors to DisruptJ20, a request that DreamHost strongly resisted, arguing that it would allow investigators to identify more than 1.3 million people who visited the site — the vast majority of whom had no connection to the Jan. 20 protests.

"In just one example of the staggering overbreadth of the search warrant, it would require DreamHost to turn over the IP logs of all visitors to the site," said the electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit internet privacy group. "Millions of visitors — activists, reporters, or you (if you clicked on the link) — would have records of their visits turned over to the government."

The warrant itself remains shielded from the public, but the Justice Department hasn't contested that it was seeking server log files that would reveal IP addresses, which are internet locators that make it relatively easy to track otherwise anonymous web users.

Monday, the nonprofit activist group Public Citizen, calling the warrant a "witch hunt," sought to intervene in the case on behalf of five anonymous people who it said had no connection to the protests but whose identities would be outed by the warrant.

In a supplemental filing on Tuesday, the Justice Department asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to let it amend its request after Public Citizen and other critics called the warrant a clear abuse of government authority.

"The government has no interest in records relating to the 1.3 million IP addresses that are mentioned in DreamHost's numerous press releases and opposition brief," said the new filing, called a reply brief, which asked the court to order DreamHost likewise not to disclose the contents of affected unpublished materials it might originally have sought.

"The warrant — like the criminal investigation — is singularly focused on criminal activity," prosecutors wrote. "It will not be used for any other purpose."

Image: Inauguration Day protest in Washington
Police confront demonstrators near the route for President Donald Trump's inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20. Astrid Riecken / EPA file

The filing indicates that investigators began the case with a fundamental misunderstanding of what they were asking for.

Under a format maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium — the international organization, known as W3C, that develops standards for the web — a typical web server log routinely records webpage requests, visitors' IP addresses and other identifying information.

But prosecutors wrote Tuesday that "what the government did not know when it obtained the warrant — what it could not have reasonably known — was the extent of visitor data maintained by DreamHost that extends beyond the government's singular locus in this case."

Paul Alan Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen, said that justification "defies belief."

"That any competent prosecutor could think that any web host would somehow not retain such sensitive and personal information, and therefore would not be included in its search warrant, is disingenuous at best," said Levy, who called the amended request "a tremendous victory for the right to read anonymously online."

A hearing on the warrant case is scheduled for Thursday before Superior Court Judge Lynn Leibovitz, who is presiding over the Inauguration Day criminal cases.