The deeply divisive 2016 presidential election result ignited an activist spirit in many US citizens. Angry and fearful about the future, they organized to protest an incoming administration that they vehemently opposed. On social media, activist websites and other online forums, the political dissenters co-ordinated their fightback.
Little did they know that months later, their government would be preparing to fight a court battle to force a web hosting company to hand over records of their online activities.
One of the vital signs of a healthy democracy is that opposition to the government is not just permitted but expected, welcome even. It’s deeply disturbing then that the current US administration is so hellbent on stamping out domestic dissent that it’s demanded the IP addresses of 1.3M visitors to a website that helped co-ordinate mass protests at President Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony.
The hosting company, DreamHost, is fighting Ministry of Justice (MoJ) demands relating to the anti-Trump #disruptj20 website [avoid clicking this link unless you are on an encrypted connection] in court on August 18. The MoJ dragnet also seeks to scoop up contact information, email content, and photos of thousands of people. It is not clear why the MoJ has made this unprecedented demand and it has thus far not responded to requests for media comment.
The lesson is loud and clear. It’s now unsafe as an American citizen to browse the internet without taking steps to protect your privacy.
It’s now unsafe as US citizen to go online without taking steps to protect your privacy.
DreamHost should be commended for standing up to the bullyboy tactics of the MoJ. It’s telling that in a blog post on the case, they reveal that “[y]ou would be shocked to see just how many of these challenges we’re obligated to mount every year!”.
They have drawn a line in the sand however, denouncing the MoJ warrant as “highly untargeted demand that chills free association and the right of free speech afforded by the Constitution”.
DreamHost is rightly concerned that the IP addresses will be used to identify individuals, reveal exactly what they viewed on the #disruptj20 site and use that against them.
Privacy advocates The Electronic Frontier Foundation are helping DreamHost fight its case. “No plausible explanation exists for a search warrant of this breadth, other than to cast a digital dragnet as broadly as possible,” they said.
This case represents a twin threat to civil liberties. On the one hand, we have US citizens at risk of being swept up in a criminal investigation simply for exercising their constitutional right to free speech. On the other, a brazen attempt to profoundly undermine one of the founding principle of the internet, namely the democratization of the ability to facilitate a free exchange of ideas.
What’s next? It’s no exaggeration to suggest that it’s not too many steps further down this road to the situation in Turkey, where insulting the president carries criminal penalties.
It’s been a horror year for online privacy in the US. This court case comes in the wake of the rollback of privacy protections that had been put in place by the outgoing Obama administration. Thanks to fierce lobbying greased by political donations, your ISP can now sell your data — unless you explicitly opt out — to the highest bidder, who will either use your browsing history to empty your wallet or discriminate against you.
Beset from all sides, the only option left to us is to protect ourselves online. Get a good VPN that is highly rated for privacy, that is not headquartered in the US or any five-eyes country and therefore not under its jurisdiction, and use it whenever you go online. If you don’t know much about VPNs, then check out our guides and educate yourself.
Grab the HTTPS Everywhere plug-in from the EFF. Even consider using Tor for particularly sensitive online activity. You just don’t know if the seemingly innocuous website you browse today will be on the government blacklist tomorrow.
Make sure the digital footprints you leave don’t lead back to your doorstep.
Image credit: Ted Eytan