August 15, 2017; Slate
One of the few heartening things about the Trump era so far is the continued willingness of activists, organizers, and concerned citizens to keep showing up and advocating for human rights and civil society. On the other hand, one of the most concerning effects of President Trump’s attitudes and policies is the erosion of the democratic norms and principles that give people a way to navigate the political system with confidence and mutual understanding. This week, the administration signaled just how nervous they are made by continued activism and how far they may be willing to go to consolidate their position. Nonprofits must be aware of the threats and demands being made, and face them with a clear mandate to protect basic rights.
Online service provider DreamHost is currently fighting back against the Department of Justice, which demanded a large cache of information about a website called DisruptJ20, hosted on DreamHost’s servers. DisruptJ20 is a collaborative planning website that was used to orchestrate protests on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The site called for “a series of massive direct actions that will shut down the Inauguration ceremonies and any related celebrations—the Inaugural parade, the Inaugural balls, you name it…[and] paralyze the city itself, using blockades and marches to stop traffic and even public transit.” As explicitly stated, they “fully support the massive and spontaneous eruption of resistance across the United States.”
Some users of the DisruptJ20 site were responsible for protests on January 20th that turned violent, smashing windows, burning a car, and injuring six police officers. Two hundred people have been arrested in connection with these protests, thanks in part to DreamHost’s cooperation with the Justice Department’s initial request for particular information related to the investigation.
Now, however, the federal government has issued a warrant for “all records or other information pertaining to [DisruptJ20’s] account or identifier, including all files, databases, and database records stored…including names, addresses, telephone numbers…any credit card and bank number,” and other items. This would include the IP addresses of 1.3 million people who have visited the site. Chris Ghazarian, general counsel for DreamHost, told the Washington Post, “The search warrant is not only dealing with everything in relation to the website but also tons of data about people who visited it…What you’re seeing is pure prosecutorial overreach by a politicized Justice Department, allowing the Trump administration to use prosecutors to silence critics.”
Like Airbnb and a few other for-profit corporations have done this year, DreamHost took a principled stand. They filed an opposition motion to the search warrant and wrote a blog post, declaring,
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The Internet was founded—and continues to survive, in the main—on its democratizing ability to facilitate a free exchange of ideas. Internet users have a reasonable expectation that they will not get swept up in criminal investigations simply by exercising their right to political speech against the government. We intend to take whatever steps are necessary to support and shield these users from what is, in our view, a very unfocused search and an unlawful request for their personal information.
The opposition motion says the request is too broad and does not guarantee destruction or safe storage of the data; the motion claims that the warrant is “unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment” and “endangers the First Amendment interests of third parties, in this case the visitors to the website at issue.”
This isn’t the first time that the Trump administration has attempted to gather information on those who oppose it. Just last month, the President’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity requested detailed voter information, which many states refused to provide on the grounds of protecting their citizens’ privacy. (Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann memorably told the press, “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.”) Advocates feared that under the semi-legitimate guise of preventing voter fraud (which mostly doesn’t exist in the U.S.), the president was preparing to disenfranchise poor and minority voters. Now, under the similarly thin guise of investigating civil unrest, the administration seems to be collecting data about those who resist its policies.
Sarah St. Vincent of Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the government “may even be able to enter the data into databases that could later be used to create profiles of, or map relationships between, people for whom there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.”
Cracking down on opposition, creating fear of reprisal for unpopular opinions, and mapping the relationships of resistance members are all tactics of repressive governments, tactics that nonprofits are obligated to fight on principle and for reasons of survival. No healthy democracy can exist without the possibility of resistance. (A history lesson might remind the Trump administration that this is in fact how the United States was founded.) The civic sector, which often faces online threats, must be extra vigilant to the protection of free speech in this sphere.—Erin Rubin