Government Prevails in Bid for Anti-Trump Website’s Subscriber Data

  • Information to be used for rioting cases, prosecutors say
  • About 200 charged for violent protests during inauguration

Police officers in riot gear stand guard near Franklin Square during a demonstration after the 58th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2017.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

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U.S. prosecutors prevailed in their request to seek information about subscribers to an anti-Trump website allegedly linked to rioting during the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C.

A judge in District of Columbia Superior Court on Thursday ordered DreamHost LLC, the host of the website disruptj20.org, to comply with a government warrant seeking information about the site’s subscribers. The government says the site was used to recruit and organize hundreds of people who rioted in the city on Jan. 20, the day President Donald Trump was sworn in, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage over nearly two dozen city blocks.

Chief Judge Robert Morin ruled that DreamHost was obligated to turn over subscriber data, but that prosecutors would have to tell the judge which data it intended to seize. The judge said he would oversee the use of the data to make sure the government’s seizure was limited to individuals linked to the riots and not people who merely posted messages or communicated with others through the site.

“I’m trying to balance the First Amendment protections and the government’s need for this information,” Morin said. “My view here is that this best protects both legitimate interests.”

Morin denied DreamHost’s request to put his ruling on hold until they could appeal his decision.

Host’s Refusal

The ruling on Thursday came after DreamHost refused to comply with the July 12 warrant, claiming the government’s request was overly broad and might expose the identities of 1.3 million people who had visited the site.

The warrant initially sought all data and records pertaining to disruptj20.org, including information about site visitors. Prosecutors said details on subscribers -- including names, addresses, phone numbers and the contents of email accounts within the disruptj20.org domain -- would help identify those who organized and participated in the riots.

Privacy advocates raised concerns that the warrant was an attempt by the Trump administration and the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions to cast a “digital dragnet” to identify the president’s critics.

On Tuesday, prosecutors amended their request, saying in part that while the government wants information on subscribers, it’s not interested in data logs containing information about visitors. Prosecutors also say they will set aside any information that doesn’t involve rioters and have it sealed.

‘Dual Purpose’

“We are sensitive to the idea that the website has a dual purpose,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Borchert told Morin during Thursday’s hearing.

That didn’t assuage DreamHost, which told Morin that the government’s revised warrant would still give it access to membership lists and content from multiple email accounts in violation of the First Amendment.

“That in and of itself will have a chilling effect,” said Raymond Aghaian, a lawyer for DreamHost.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington told Morin that the website, disruptj20.org, was used to recruit and organize hundreds of people who rioted on Inauguration Day. The rioters, armed with hammers, crow bars and wooden sticks, also injured police and others, according to prosecutors.

So far, 19 people have pleaded guilty among the almost 200 people who were charged, prosecutors said in court papers.

The website wasn’t just a way to disseminate information “but was also used to coordinate and privately communicate among a focused group of people whose intent included planned violence,” prosecutors said in a court filing. Organizers of the riot used the website to verify the identity of people who would take part by requiring attendees to log in and provide their credentials, according to the government.

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