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Justice Department’s Dreamhost Subpoena Ramps Up the Police State

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Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

If the U.S. Department of Justice prevails in a case against web-hosting provider Dreamhost, you can become the subject of a criminal investigation by visiting a website.

You don’t have to re-read that. The problem is not with your eyes; it’s with your government. If the courts uphold this Justice Department action, the erosion of your privacy rights on the Internet, a process that began with the Patriot Act and picked up full-steam under the Obama administration, will have been completed under President Donald Trump.

A major pillar of a police state will now be in place.

The sorry saga starts last January when the Justice Department began investigating people who had been organizing protests at Trump’s inauguration. In this unsavory combination of the federal government’s increasingly intrusive actions and Trump’s megamania, Justice lawyers presented Dreamhost with a search warrant on a website — Disruptj20.org [1] — which was being used to organize those actions.

Did you click on that link? Oh fudge! I should have warned you. You’re now a target of the Justice Department’s search warrant. To explain…

First thing to understand: the search warrant that is at the center of this case is public but the affidavit that is presented to the court to obtain the warrant isn’t. So we don’t know what the government is actually investigating and why the data it requests is relevant to that investigation. In short, it’s tough to challenge because you don’t know what to challenge about it.

The communication with the target of this type of search warrant is accompanied by a series of “requests”: demands for very specific information which emanates from the warrant (which is usually not very specific at all).

After its initial “request” to Dreamhost for the names, addresses and other information of the site’s owners and managers, the DoJ upgraded its legal orders to acquire a lot of more information about the site including the database records of everyone who signed up for email notifications and particular actions and the IP addresses of all its visitors. The IP address is a number that is randomly assigned to you by your Internet connection provider when you go on-line. It follows you for your entire session on-line and can be used to identify you, where you log in from and what websites you’ve visited. So people who click on the link and are delivered to the site (like you if you clicked it) have their IP address logged by the server the site is on. You don’t have to do anything else.

At last count, over 1.3 million IP addresses have been logged at that site. That’s the information the government wants and it’s information the government has never before requested from a hosting provider.

Dreamhost, one of the world’s largest web-hosting companies, is hardly a model of political courage or resistance to government intrusion. In fact, it cooperates with government investigations all the time and will routinely give up your site information with nothing more than a legal order from a government lawyer or investigator. This isn’t a political choice by Dreamhost; it doesn’t make those. It’s probably more an attempt to avoid a costly legal battle.

So, until the order was expanded to include those IPs, Dreamhost gave up information about the distruptj20 website. In its statement on the controversy [2] it almost boasts that it’s been “working with the Department of Justice to comply with legal process”.

The problem with that compliance strategy has now become clear. It set the precedent the government needed to go after what constitutes an entire movement by simply expanding the legal demands Dreamhost had already obeyed.

But the corporate giant stopped cold at the expansion. Even Dreamhost understood what such a thing meant: if you can get this kind of information from a website, you can track everyone getting involved in a campaign and take action against them. You can, literally, demobilize a movement and make involvement in it illegal. You have a police state.

The parties are going to court this Friday because Dreamhost is making a legal challenge to the order. We will report on that when it happens.

What’s interesting here, for the moment, is how much light it shines on a major contradiction in the strategy of on-line repression. While large corporations (and the rest of the country’s ruling class) have no problem with the government seizing data and monitoring on-line activities as it’s been doing for over a decade now, there’s a line the corporations don’t want to cross.

The wholesale gathering of data clearly affects movement websites but, if it continues, it will start to affect people’s patterns of use of the Internet and companies don’t want that. Such “hesitation” in the fast clicking world of the Web would affect commerce and profits in all kinds of ways.

For those of us who care about freedom, though, the more important issue is what this means for a movement that has become almost fully dependent on the Internet for its communications. In fact, its successes (and there have been many recently) can be traced to the rapid response and wide-ranging communications possible with the Net.

If the government can make you a target of an investigation because you visit a website, it can do a lot of things to prevent you from exercising your right to organize and protest. And that, at this point in our tortured history, isn’t something we should be willing to give up.

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Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

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