WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A D.C. Superior Court judge approved a modified request from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for data from a website that federal prosecutors allege may have been used to plan the riots on January 20, 2017 during President Donald Trump's inauguration.
Chief Judge Robert Morin ordered DreamHost to immediately turn over the data to the DOJ and said he was trying to balance the needs of law enforcement and protections of the First Amendment with his ruling.
Lawyers for DreamHost said it was a tremendous victory considering where the case started, but still have concerns about the order.
"I think it’s a fantastic first step, over the last few days, in terms of taking a right step towards user privacy," said DreamHost's general counsel Chris Ghazarian.
In a statement, the company called it a "win for privacy".
Investigators had alleged that the riots that took place during the President Trump's inauguration may have been planned using the website DisruptJ20 and wanted DreamHost to hand over all information related to the site.
DreamHost refused and said the request was too broad and would have contained the IP address information of the site's 1.3-million visitors.
The DOJ tried to compel the server to turn the data over, but has since removed the request for the IP addresses. It still wanted all emails associated with the site, however, the server said those would still contain IP addresses.
DreamHost argued the DOJ should give specific emails, instead of casting such a wide net and scooping up information on innocent visitors.
"When it comes to sensitive First Amendment issues such as this one, it should not be the case where the government gets to rummage through material to determine whether something is valid or not," said DreamHost lawyer Raymond Aghaian.
But DOJ lawyers argued for, and got, what is called a two-step process, but with restrictions.
Judge Morin said he will supervise the review of the data, but before it starts the DOJ must inform him who will be looking through the data, how the review will be done, and how the information of innocent visitors to the site would be protected. He added information that is not pertinent to the investigation cannot be shared with other agencies and will be placed under seal.
DreamHost lawyers said the ruling has a chilling effect on a person's right of association.
"The mere fact that this information is being turned over to the government means that the next time you’re sitting at home with your family, thinking about visiting a website, you’re going to second guess yourself," added Ghazarian.
While the information has to be provided immediately, the DOJ cannot begin searching through until it submits its plan to Judge Morin and until DreamHost decides whether it will appeal the decision.