Trump administration orders Facebook to hand over private information on 'anti-administration activists'

A legal challenge warns of stifling online speech

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Saturday 30 September 2017 11:44 BST
Protesters block an entry point before the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017
Protesters block an entry point before the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017

The Department of Justice has demanded Facebook turn over information about three anti-Trump activists, drawing a legal challenge from civil liberties advocates who say the government is overreaching by seeking vast amounts of personal information.

Warrants issued by the US Attorney for the District of Columbia in February asked Facebook to detail the activities of three users who spearheaded mass protests of President Donald Trump’s inauguration, as well as information about the page they used to plan the demonstrations. More than 200 people were arrested as violence flared in otherwise peaceful gatherings.

Citing “evidence of rioting or intent to riot”, the sweeping requests ask Facebook to disclose all personal information of the organizers, including their passwords and physical addresses, as well as all activity associated with their accounts, any photos or videos they uploaded or any messages they sent. A separate warrant asks Facebook to reveal information about users who interacted with a page used to plan the protests.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has moved to block the warrants on behalf of the targeted activists, arguing in a filing that enforcing the warrants would “reach deeply into individuals’ private lives and protected associational and political activity”.

It warns that giving the government access to such broad repositories of data would stifle future speech.

“The enforcement of the warrants would chill future online communications of political activists and anyone who communicates with them, as they will learn from these searches that no Facebook privacy setting can protect them from government snooping on political and personal materials far removed from any proper law enforcement interest”, the filing warns.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's office declined to comment. In a statement, Facebook backed the ACLU's efforts on behalf of the activists.

“We successfully fought in court to be able to notify the three people whose broad account information was requested by the government. We are grateful to the companies and civil society organizations that supported us in arguing for people’s ability to learn about and challenge overly broad search warrants“, a spokesperson said.

Among the information that could be exposed, the ACLU's court filing argues, is information about conversations with friends and family members, “intimate messages” sent to romantic partners and “detailed discussions” of having endured domestic violence. One of the targeted activists said in a filing that the government would have access to information about her long history of unrelated political activity, including posts identifying others who participated in various marches and sit-ins.

And the government’s dragnet could sweep up thousands of other people, the ACLU argues, citing the roughly 6,000 people who “liked” the disruptj20 page and others who said they would attend events sponsored by the page unrelated to the inauguration protest, including a “Queer Dance Party at Mike Pence’s House”.

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The unfolding legal battle marks the latest clash over the inauguration protests, with government demands for information running up against the privacy concerns of web users.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice served online service provider DreamHost with a warrant seeking information about anyone who had visited a website used to organize anti-Trump protests. DreamHost challenged the request, and ultimately a judge compelled the company to turn over a scaled-down collection of data - an outcome DreamHost framed as a victory for its users.

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