Free speech at risk in US

This article is more than 12 months old

US demanding anti-Trump website's visitor data will make people more afraid to express views

One of the great things about the US is that if you do not like the government, you have the right to speak out against it.

Since President Donald Trump took office in January, ordinary citizens have been voicing dissent on the Internet and in the streets.

Now, an extraordinary request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) could make people increasingly afraid to exercise that right.

DOJ is trying to compel an Internet hosting company, DreamHost, to hand over information about everyone who visited, a DreamHost customer website that helped organise Trump inauguration protests.

DreamHost is fighting back, arguing that complying with the request would require handing over 1.3 million IP addresses, and contact information, content of e-mails, and photographs of thousands of people.

While the Trump inauguration protests were largely peaceful, some protestors were violent and destructive.

But the DOJ request is not limited to rioters. It could also affect people who casually visited a protest website, perhaps simply to learn more about what was happening.

This DOJ request appears groundbreaking, and not in a good way.

Mr Mark Rumold, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is working with DreamHost on the case, said this kind of information seizure would usually be limited to a website dedicated to criminal activity, such as child pornography or drug sales.

What is unusual about the DreamHost case, Mr Rumold said, is that the targeted website is not dedicated to a criminal enterprise, "but to engaging in the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect: associating, communicating, learning and engaging with like-minded political protesters and in organising protests and dissent".

DreamHost is challenging the DOJ on the constitutionality of its warrant.

In a blog post called We Fight for the Users, DreamHost said law enforcement agencies regularly approach it to ask for information about customers who might be the target of criminal investigations.


But this time, the DOJ is going too far. DreamHost is protesting because "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".

In making this overly broad request, DOJ has taken a page from the playbook of authoritarian governments.

It may seem far-fetched to compare the US to China, for example, where political protest websites wouldn't even be allowed to exist.

But blocking websites is only one way to crack down on dissent. Authoritarian governments use the threat of surveillance - and possible subsequent legal action - to create an atmosphere of fear and caution.

Expressing your view or organising for activism online is a good way to get on the official radar.

Sometimes, it is just not worth the trouble.

Citizens' self-censorship helps authoritarian governments keep the Web in check.

Self-censorship may not appear to be much of an issue in the US, where a brief glance at Twitter will expose you to a flood of anti-Trump commentary.

Street protests are popping up regularly, with the help of social media. Americans do not seem particularly afraid of expressing themselves, or of mobilising for action.

But that could change.

America is divided and the atmosphere is tense.

If protests were to escalate, it is not hard to imagine the Trump administration putting more pressure on Internet companies to reveal information about people associated with demonstrations.

Political activists are not likely to be deterred by such requests, even if they were overly broad.

But ordinary citizens, those who do not consider themselves "dissidents", might baulk.

Would people still want to express their views on social media if it meant exposing themselves to a potential investigation?

Complaining will not solve anything anyway, they might figure, so it is not worth the risk.

In this particular case, the DOJ may not get what it wants. Mr Rumold said the most likely outcome is that DreamHost will have to turn over some information from the site, after the DOJ's warrant is substantially narrowed and protections are put in place for innocent users.

But even if that happens, the story should not end there.

Internet companies should continue to speak out about broad government requests, and the media and public must remain vigilant.

Americans should not take Internet freedom for granted. - REUTERS

The writer is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and policy adviser in the US State Department.

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