News & Politics

DOJ Requesting the Identities of Emailers Involved in Trump-Protest Website

Advocacy group argues that the DOJ seeks to build a list of those who oppose the Trump administration.

Photo Credit: Molly Adams / Flickr

In the ongoing battle for online rights, the non-profit advocacy group Public Citizen has urged the courts that internet users who emailed a Trump-protest website have the right to remain anonymous.

The web-hosting service DreamHost is facing a warrant from the U.S. Department of Justice to release the information of all users who emailed or received emails from its site DisruptJ20.org, according to a statement from Public Citizen.

Public Citizen is representing three “John Does” who engaged in email contact with the domain/listerv, and according to the motion, “object to disclosures that would lead to identifying them to a federal government that is increasingly hostile to dissent."

The latest motion was filed in response to D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Robert E. Morin’s decision that DreamHost release the emails and information of those who interacted with the website. 

“The execution of the warrant would lead to the loss of the anonymity that they enjoyed in sending and receiving those communications, and in being included in the membership list for the listserv,” the motion argues. “The 'Does' unquestionably have standing to raise their First Amendment rights in opposition to discovery that would take away their First Amendment right to send and receive communications anonymously.”

The initial warrant began in connection with a criminal investigation into Trump’s inauguration-weekend rioting that led to 230 arrests. Initially, the DOJ sought the 1.3 million IP addresses of users who had visited the website as a whole, but the government excluded that portion of the request when met with widespread outrage and what seemed like little chance of court approval. 

The DOJ claims that several “purported” members were arrested and according to the Washington Post, “the damage caused by the group was in excess of $100,000.”

But Public Citizen and DreamHost maintain that revealing the identities of the John Does will uncover neither criminal intent nor planning of illegal activity. Rather, the two groups believe the DOJ seeks to build a list of those who oppose the Trump administration.

Public Citizen argues that the latest court-issued order did not notify the Does or give them a chance to protect their anonymity. 

“That information could be used to identify any individuals who used this site to exercise and express political speech protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. That should be enough to set alarm bells off in anyone’s mind,” said DreamHost. “This is, in our opinion, a strong example of investigatory overreach and a clear abuse of government authority.”

Jennie Neufeld is an intern at Salon, formerly a junior writing fellow at AlterNet. 

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