WASHINGTON D.C. —Yesterday, in a major victory for online and political free speech, the Chief Judge of the D.C. Superior Court revised an earlier order governing how the Department of Justice can access user data stored by Dreamhost. Judge Morin’s new order allows the web hosting company to protect the identities of innocent political dissidents by redacting the identities of individual users of the anti-Trump website disruptJ20.org before turning over information to DOJ. Before obtaining user information, the government must show that it is directly related to its ongoing criminal investigation into alleged rioting on Inauguration Day.
“Judge Morin’s original order would have exposed law-abiding Americans to retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights, thus chilling political discussion online,” said TechFreedom Legal Fellow Graham Owens. “He particularly deserves credit for rethinking his original order.”
Judge Morin’s new order declares that the government “does not have the right to rummage through the information contained on DreamHost’s website and discover the identity of, or access communications by, individuals not participating in alleged criminal activity.”
“The Supreme Court has made clear that the right to speak anonymously is ‘an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’’ assured by the Constitution,” continued Owens, “regardless of whether an author’s ‘decision in favor of anonymity’ is ‘motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation … or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one’s privacy as possible.’ Judge Morin reaffirmed this constitutional right. James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay — who felt it necessary to originally publish the Federalist Papers under a pseudonym — would be proud.”
Under the previous court order (see TechFreedom’s earlier blog post), the government would have had access to all information under the warrant — including troves of information related to innocent political association membership and speech — and would have alone had the power to determine what was seizable. This broad power would have had a significant chilling effect on Americans’ willingness to engage in political discourse online, given the perception that that the government could easily unmask their identity. The new order remedies this issue, and will protect the identities of innocent users who might fear retaliation.
We can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay tuned for more on the chilling of online speech and privacy intrusions. See our other work on privacy and free speech, including:
- Our blog post on the original court order
- Our statement on the DOJ’s warrant
- Blog post on efforts to force Glassdoor.com to identify anonymous users who anonymously shared their experiences and opinions about their employer
TechFreedom is a non-profit, non-partisan technology policy think tank. We work to chart a path forward for policymakers towards a bright future where technology enhances freedom, and freedom enhances technology.