Dreamhost Crowd-Funding Legal Action Against DOJ

NEWS ANALYSIS: The hosting company is opposing a demand from the Department of Justice to turn over every piece of information about every visitor to a political action website.

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Web-hosting company Dreamhost is trying to raise $10,000 to help cover its legal costs in an ongoing fight with the U.S. Department of Justice by using crowd funding site Crowdjustice. Pledges are about a third of the way there as of Aug. 21.

The fight stems from a demand by the DoJ that Dreamhost turn over about 1.3 million visitor records--including IP addresses, full contact information, emails, photos and even server logs--as they pertain to Disruptj20.org, a site that planned to hold protests and otherwise cause disruptions during the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the U.S.

Protests on Inauguration Day turned violent, and about 200 people eventually were indicted for rioting. The Justice Department began requesting records for users suspected of being involved in the rioting, and initially Dreamhost complied with the requests for information. However, the DoJ issued far broader demands in a search warrant on July 12, 2017, that demanded all records including all files, databases and database records stored by Dreamhost as they relate to the Disruptj20 site.

DoJ Demands Detailed Information on Content of Email

The information the DoJ demanded included extremely detailed and personal information, including the contents of emails belonging to users of the site, credit card information and any domains that may have been registered by visitors to the site. The demand included all source code from JavaScript, all HTML code and all communication logs.

Dreamhost has declined to provide the information demanded by the DoJ, saying that the warrant is overly broad and as a result violates the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure. Dreamhost is also saying that the demands may also violate the First Amendment because of the chilling effect they may have on free speech as regard to political protest.

Supporting Dreamhost in its legal battle are TechFreedom, a non-partisan technology policy think tank, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. Both groups say that the Justice Department demands are far too broad and are specifically forbidden by the Fourth Amendment.

“The founders outlawed general warrants precisely to prevent governments from harassing their political opponents en masse,” said Berin Szóka, president of TechFreedom, in a statement on the organization’s website. “If the DOJ can unmask over a million internet users simply for visiting a website, without any further alleged connection to criminal activity, then no American is safe to use the internet to access dissident speech. The fear of being unmasked—and be subjected to harassment, or far worse—will chill the speech of millions more.”

EFF: DoJ Making Unconstitutional Demands

Mark Rumold, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said that the Justice Department is making an unconstitutional demand in its investigations of the January riots. He said that such a warrant would bring anyone who ever visited the site into the investigation, regardless of why they were there or whether they had any part in the attempt to disrupt the inauguration.

“No plausible explanation exists for a search warrant of this breadth, other than to cast a digital dragnet as broadly as possible,” Rumold said in a statement on the EFF website. “But the Fourth Amendment was designed to prohibit fishing expeditions like this. Those concerns are especially relevant here, where DOJ is investigating a website that served as a hub for the planning and exercise of First Amendment-protected activities.”

Yet, it’s not clear that the federal courts will agree. For years, investigators have used a two-stage process for investigating digital crimes. Those two stages are first, seizing all computer equipment suspected of having information needed by investigators; the second stage is performing a forensics search of the seized computers. Courts have routinely upheld such searches, because there’s no good way to find the data needed except by getting it from the storage on the computer.

The procedure there is to hold on to the computer for as long as it takes to get the evidence, even if it takes months. The difference with Dreamhost is that the DoJ isn’t asking for the computers and storage, but rather asking the company to get the information itself and pass it along to the government.

Dreamhost Not Suspected of Wrongdoing, Just Hosting

The difference is primarily one of procedure, and it has the advantage to Dreamhost of not having its servers and storage physically removed from its control. But the question then becomes whether there’s a difference from the government taking the equipment or asking Dreamhost to keep the equipment and provide the data.

The other difference in this is Dreamhost isn’t suspected of any wrongdoing, but rather of hosting a group that’s suspected of doing wrong. It’s like the owner of an apartment building being required to allow a warrant to be served on a single apartment, rather than searching the entire building. Here, Dreamhost is being asked for the contents of a single customer website, not for the contents of all sites that Dreamhost has.

Those differences may be subtle, but they could make all the difference when the Dreamhost case goes before the judge in Washington on Aug. 24. Whether Dreamhost’s arguments are compelling remains to be seen.

It’s also not clear whether the crowd-funding effort will raise enough money to support the appeals that are the almost certainly the next step.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...