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U.S. government backs down on request for visitor logs of Trump protest website

The U.S. government has said it has "no interest" in the 1.3 million IP addresses that visited an anti-Trump protest site and has dropped the request in a revised warrant application.

Department of Justice says it has 'no interest' in records containing 1.3 million IP addresses

The U.S. government sought a broad range of records associated with the website www.disruptj20.org, which helped organize a protest of U.S. President Donald Trump's January inauguration. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

The U.S. government has revised its request for data from an anti-Trump protest site to exclude a log of its visitors, according to a brief filed in court today, saying it has "no interest" in the records.

In an application for a search warrant filed last month, the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District of Columbia sought a broad range of records associated with the website disruptj20.org, which helped organize a protest of U.S. President Donald Trump's January inauguration.

After violence broke out, 200 protesters were charged with rioting.

Dreamhost, the site's hosting provider, had characterized the government's warrant request as "overly broad." It said the request would have required the company to hand over a log containing 1.3 million IP addresses that were recorded to have accessed the site in the days following the inauguration protests.

In its latest filing, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said it could not have reasonably known ahead of time the extent of the visitor data Dreamhost maintained. 

The DOJ has now requested its warrant be revised to specifically exclude the site's visitor logs, and be limited to information from the site's creation last July to the date of the inauguration.

In a blog post, Dreamhost called the news "a huge win for internet privacy."

"It is counter to the principles of the right to privacy that law enforcement would issue a broad warrant for data on millions, then narrow once challenged," said Drew Mitnick, policy counsel for the digital rights group Access Now, in a statement. 

Focus on 'a premeditated riot'

The request is part of the government's ongoing investigation into what prosecutors characterize as a violent, premeditated riot at Trump's inauguration. While the protest was largely peaceful, some smashed storefronts and set fire to a limousine.

The investigation has so far resulted in 19 guilty pleas and almost 200 other pending criminal cases, the DOJ says.

In a court filing, Dreamhost's legal counsel, Raymond O. Aghaian, described the disruptj20 website as referencing "organizing, resistance, disruptions and civil disobedience, but does not describe acts of property damage or violence."

The company also criticized the search warrant it received in July as being "a highly untargeted demand that chills free association and the right of free speech" — an assertion the government disputes.

"This warrant has nothing to do with that right," the government's reply reads. "The warrant is focused on evidence of the planning, co-ordination and participation in a criminal act — that is, a premeditated riot."

Although the warrant has been reduced in scope, the government is still seeking information that can help it identify the website's operators, the contents of email accounts registered using the site's domain and copies of site files, such as databases and images.

Hearing set for Thursday

In its blog post, Dreamhost wrote that company appreciates "the DOJ's willingness to look at and reconsider both the scope and the depth of their original request for records." But it still has concerns.

In particular, lawyers are still worried about the privacy of the website's visitors, and what Dreamhost has characterized as a lack of specifics around the information to be seized.

It plans to address those issues during a hearing scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday in D.C. Superior Court.

"Because this remains a pending matter, the U.S. Attorney's Office has no comment at this time," wrote spokesperson Bill Miller in an email.

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About the Author

Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News. He was previously the Canadian editor of Motherboard, Vice Media's science and technology website, and a business and technology reporter for the Financial Post. Email: matthew.braga@cbc.ca