The US government’s move to compel an internet hosting site to hand over information about anti-Trump protesters could set an unwelcome precedent, writes Emily Parker.         

One of the great things about America is that if you don’t like the government, you
have the right to speak out against it.

Since Donald Trump took office in January, ordinary citizens have been voicing dissent on the internet and in the streets.

Recently, an extraordinary request from the US Department of Justice threatened to make people increasingly afraid to exercise that right.

The Department of Justice tried to compel an internet hosting company, DreamHost, to hand over data about everyone who visited disruptj20.org, a DreamHost customer web site that helped organise Trump inauguration protests.

DreamHost fought back, arguing that complying with the request would require handing over 1.3m IP addresses, as well as contact information, content of emails, and photographs ofm thousands of people.

While the Trump inauguration protests were largely peaceful, some protestors were violent and destructive. But the Department of Justice request was not limited to rioters.

It could also affect people who casually visited a protest website, perhaps simply to learn more about what was happening.

Last Tuesday, DreamHost wrote that the Department of Justice modified its request to exclude unpublished media, HTTP access, and error logs.

Visitors’ IP addresses would be largely safe, the company said. (The US government, for its mpart, said it “values and respects the First Amendment right of all Americans” and that itsm original warrant was focused on evidence about “a premeditated riot”.)

DreamHost called the development “a huge win for internet privacy,” but also noted that the fight is not over.

Why was the original Department of Justice request so alarming?

Mark Rumold, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is working with DreamHost on the case, said this kind of information seizure is usually limited to a site dedicated to criminal activity, such as child pornography or drug sales.

What was unusual about the DreamHost case, Rumold said, is that the website is not dedicated to a criminal enterprise, “but to engaging in the core of what the US First Amendment is designed to protect: Associating, communicating, learning, and engaging with like-minded political protesters and in organising protests and dissent”.

DreamHost challenged the Department of Justice on the constitutionality of its warrant. In a blog post called ‘We Fight for the Users’, DreamHost explained that US law enforcement regularly approaches the company to ask for information about customers who might be the target of criminal investigations. But the Department of Justice went too far.

DreamHost was protesting because, it wrote: “Internet users have a reasonable expectation that they will not get swept up in criminal investigations simply by exercising their right to political speech against the government.”

In making this overly broad request, the Department of Justice took a page from the playbook of authoritarian
governments.

It may seem far-fetched to compare the US to China, for example, where political protest sites aren’t even allowed to exist. But blocking websites is only one way to crack down on dissent.

Authoritarian governments use the threat of surveillance — and possible subsequent legal action — to create an atmosphere of fear and caution.

Expressing your viewpoint or organising for activism online is a good way to get on the official radar. Sometimes it’s just not worth the trouble. Citizens’ self-censorship helps authoritarian governments keep the web in check.

Self-censorship may not appear to be much of an issue in the US, where a brief glance at Twitter will expose you to a flood of anti-Trump commentary. Street protests pop up regularly, with the help of social media.

Americans don’t seem particularly afraid of expressing themselves, or of mobilising for action. But that could change. America is very divided and the atmosphere is tense.

If protests were to escalate, it’s not hard to imagine the Trump administration putting more pressure on internet companies to reveal information about people associated with demonstrations.

Political activists are not likely to be deterred by such information requests, even if they were overly broad.

However, ordinary citizens, those that don’t consider themselves to be ‘dissidents’, might balk.

The internet is where all kinds of people come together to express grievances and co ordinate action. How many of us would think twice about visiting a protest site if they knew that the hosting company might have to hand over information about them?

Would people still want to express their views on social media if it meant exposing themselves to a potential investigation?

Complaining won’t solve anything anyway, they might figure, so it’s not worth the risk.

Rumold predicted that DreamHost would likely have to turn over some information after the Department of Justice’s warrant was substantially narrowed and protections were put in place to protect innocent users.

And while the Department of Justice has indeed narrowed its request, DreamHost is not resting on its laurels. The company says that much of the Department of Justice’s original demand remains in place, and addressed its concerns in a hearing yesterday.

No matter what happens, the story shouldn’t end there. Internet companies should continue to speak out about overly broad government requests, and the media and public must remain vigilant. We should not take internet freedom for granted.

Emily Parker is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and policy advisor in the US State Department. She is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground. 


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