Dreamhost + DOJ Showdown, Web Hosting Company Fights For User Privacy

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has demanded that the cloud computing and web hosting company Dreamhost turn over a mass amount of personal user information from an anti-Trump website (www.disruptj20.org). This demand comes after the Department found that the site helped organized protests of President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

The federal government issued a search warrant on July 12, 2017, for information on anyone who visited this website, including anything viewed and anything uploaded – from messages, digital files, and photographs to records and more. The website hosting company Dreamhost shows that more than 1 million page view requests were made within six days after President Trump’s inauguration alone.

Dreamhost is fighting the federal search warrant, stating that it is unconstitutionally broad. The hosting company’s lawyers, Raymond Aghaian and Chris Ghazarian, issued an opposition motion to the court.

On August 18, 2017, Dreamhost went to the scheduled hearing and took a stand against the DOJ, stating that the search warrant’s request is “overly vague.” Dreamhost also felt they needed to take this stand to fight for their customers’ “right to privacy and ability to view websites of their choosing anonymously.” The search warrant served to Dreamhost seeks information on anyone who simply visited DistruptJ20.org – drawing into question the constitutional reach of the federal government.

On August 24, 2017, the DOJ filed a motion to compel Dreamhost to hand over all of the data originally requested in the search warrant.

Dreamhost Fights For Users

Dreamhost decided to go public on August 14th with this blog post, “We Fight for Our Users,” which they have updated every time something new happens. The blog outlines the entire fight with the United States government, starting in July. An influx of support for Dreamhost came when the general public read about what the DOJ was demanding of the web hosting company and, as a result, the DOJ has made an amendment to the original search warrant.


According to the Dreamhost blog, “The DOJ has asked that the courts exclude the following from their original request: Any unpublished media, including both text and photographs that may appear in blog posts that were drafted but never made public. Any HTTP access and error logs, meaning visitors’ IP addresses are largely safe.”

The amendment shows progress, but Dreamhost says that this is not a huge victory. The DOJ is bringing this amendment in late in the game, but most of the original demand – and concern for constitutional infringement – remains.

Dreamhost appreciates that the DOJ did what they asked, which was to reconsider the scope and depth of their request. While Dreamhost is grateful that the DOJ has made an amendment, there is still more work to do.

The company has also continued its fight for internet privacy by filing a sur-reply on August 24th, 2017, in which Dreamhost explains their problem with the request:

“We took issue with the sheer scope of this single request for information. Collecting the browsing habits of many tens of thousands of general internet users (who were exercising their own right to free speech and free assembly) in the pursuit of a criminal investigation against a single website owner raised strong First and Fourth Amendment questions for us.”

Amendments to the Warrant

The court also put more limits on the DOJ’s request but has enforced their request, which means that Dreamhost now has no choice but to hand over the requested information if they do not want to face legal recourse.

The revisions to the request from the DOJ include the following:

  • The government investigators will have their names be made public.
  • The methods the investigators use to go through the data will also be made public.
  • The court will oversee the production of evidence so that the DOJ cannot do so independently.
  • The investigators will have to prove to the court why the evidence they gather is covered under the warrant.
  • If the court decides the evidence is not responsive, it will be sealed. The sealed information will not be made available to the government. It will be forbidden to release the sealed information to any other government agency.


The Future of Internet Privacy

What we are seeing with the Dreamhost warrant and hearings are potentially an infringement on constitutional rights. Not only do citizens have the right to free speech and free assembly, but the DOJ is asking for a broad investigation of over a million users – many of whom were simply visiting a website with the expectation of anonymity.

While Dreamhost continues to stand up for their customers, it’s hard for them to fight the legal system’s process alone. This case is a turning point for all Americans who believe they have inalienable rights, and for the service providers who make their money protecting the data and privacy of their users.

If you’re interested in supporting Dreamhost and the 1.3 million users affected by the federal search warrant, you can donate here. Share this blog on social media to show people what’s really happening in Washington.

UPDATE #1: The Department of Justice is now going after the “ResistThis” Facebook page (formerly called “DistruptJ20”) with this warrant, which states that the group incited a riot. Resist This is a public Facebook page run by Emmelia Talarico. Even though the page is public, the warrant would get information on Talarico (since it’s connected to her personal Facebook account), and approximately 6,000 individuals who “liked” the page. Talarico has responded with this declaration. Two more warrants have been issued, and the targets of the warrants include DisruptJ20 activists Legba Carrefour and Lacy MacAuley, who also wrote declarations in response.

UPDATE #2: Dreamhost just updated their blog with a post titled, “The End of the Road“. The final order from the Superior Court has been issued to Dreamhost stating exactly what the United States government wants from the web hosting company. Fortunately, there are some changes that will protect the privacy of website visitors. The final order gives Dreamhost the ability to remove all identifying information to protect the privacy of the website users. Cheif Judge Morin found that the U.S. Justice Department doesn’t have the right to go through the information from Dreamhost to find information that would identify innocent website users.

The final order gives Dreamhost the ability to remove all identifying information to protect the privacy of the website users. Cheif Judge Morin found that the U.S. Justice Department doesn’t have the right to go through the information from Dreamhost to find information that would identify innocent website users.

This order is much different than the one Dreamhost received back in July of this year. The amount of information Dreamhost has to hand over has been dramatically reduced. If the DOJ wants identifying information on users they must show proof of criminal activity.

This is a huge relief for all internet users, as the first search warrant issued stated that they wanted information on more than a million users. Dreamhost has been quite successful in fighting Trump’s DOJ on this search warrant. We could only imagine what would have happened if Dreamhost decided to simply comply with the first order.

Dreamhost will be complying with the final order, stating that it is now not unlike hundreds of other orders they have received from the government. Since they can now redact users’ identifying information, they have no problem compiling the mass data. Dreamhost states that they will be going over all of the data in order to remove any personal information.


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