Commentary: The threat to internet freedom in Trump’s America

(Emily Parker is a former staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and policy advisor in the U.S. State Department. The opinions expressed here are her own.)

By Emily Parker

(Reuters) – One of the great things about America is that if you don’t 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.

The DOJ is trying to compel an internet hosting company, DreamHost, to hand over information about everyone who visited disruptj20.org, a DreamHost customer web site that helped organize Trump inauguration protests. DreamHost is fighting back, arguing that complying with the request would require handing over 1.3 million IP addresses, as well as contact information, content of emails, 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 web site, perhaps simply to learn more about what was happening.

This DOJ request appears groundbreaking, and not in a good way. Mark Rumold, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is working with DreamHost on the case, says that this kind of information seizure usually would be limited to a site dedicated to criminal activity, like child pornography or drug sales. What’s unusual about the DreamHost case, Rumold said in an email, 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 organizing 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 explained that law enforcement regularly approaches the company to ask for information about customers who might be the target of criminal investigations. But the DOJ is going too far. DreamHost is protesting because, it writes, “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, the DOJ has taken a page from the playbook of authoritarian governments. It may seem far-fetched to compare the United States to China, for example, where political protest sites wouldn’t even be allowed to exist. But blocking Web sites 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 viewpoint or organizing for activism online is a good way to get on the official radar. Sometimes, it’s 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 United States, 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 don’t seem particularly afraid of expressing themselves, or of mobilizing for action. But that could change. America is very divided and the atmosphere is tense. If protests were to escalate, it’s 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 information requests, even if they were overly broad. But ordinary citizens, those that don’t consider themselves “dissidents,” might balk. The internet is where all kinds of people come together to express grievances and coordinate action. How many Americans would think twice about visiting a protest site if they knew that the hosting company might have to hand over information about them? Would people still want to express their views on social media if it meant exposing themselves to a potential investigation? Complaining won’t solve anything anyway, they might figure, so it’s not worth the risk.

In this particular case, the DOJ may not get what it wants. EFF’s Rumold says that 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 to protect innocent users. But even if that happens, the story shouldn’t end there. Internet companies should continue to speak out about overly broad government requests, and the media and public must remain vigilant. Americans should not take internet freedom for granted.

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