On July 12, the Department of Justice has issued a request to web hosting provider, DreamHost, seeking information on visitors to a website that was used to organize protests against President Trump on Inauguration Day. DreamHost has fought this request because it would amount to handing over 1.3 million visitor IP addresses, contact information and content, in what appears to be a clear threat to freedom of speech and privacy.
The broad search warrant seeks for DreamHost to turnover detailed information, including IP addresses, contact information and financial information of all visitors to the site; DreamHost already complied with the request to turn over the registration information of the owners of the website. The warrant also seeks communications and unpublished content, such as draft posts and photos.
The request will clearly have the effect of chilling freedom of speech and freedom of association. It appears that the Administration is seeking to identify dissidents who oppose President Trump, a clear threat to the First Amendment rights of the website’s visitors. One can only assume that the Administration is using the power of the DOJ to threaten and silence critics of President Trump.
For libraries, who have long championed freedom of speech and association, these reports are particularly appalling. Privacy is essential to the exercise of the First Amendment so that an individual may research, inquire and learn without having the subject of his interests scrutinized by others. Patron privacy has long be a fundamental value of libraries and in a world where so much information is now online, it is critical for protections to extend to visitors to websites. The DOJ’s warrant threatens these central tenants to a free and open democracy.
DreamHost is challenging the request, with a hearing scheduled for today. DreamHost argues that the search warrant is overly broad and violates the Fourth Amendment and privacy laws. You can read more at DreamHost’s blog post on the case.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Supreme Court of the United States’ decision in Reno v. ACLU, a case that determined that certain provisions of the Communication Decency Act (CDA) – which sought to govern speech online – violated the right to free speech. This decision was a landmark decision, the Court’s first about the Internet and applied the same freedom of speech rules for print to speech on the Internet (both of which are more open than TV or radio broadcasts).
The CDA was designed to protect children from “obscene or indecent” content. However, because of the breadth and vagueness of the provisions, the Court found that the CDA could also suppress speech to adults:
We are persuaded that the CDA lacks the precision that the First Amendment requires when a statute regulates the content of speech. In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another.
The Court found that less restrictive alternatives could be used to achieve the same goal of reducing explicit content to children. The CDA, however, resulted in “an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.”
Reno v. ACLU is a decision that gave us the Internet as we know it today. One that is free and open, a modern town square. Celebrating this landmark ruling brings to mind a number of related issues that are at the forefront of discussions today. While Reno v. ACLU gave us a ruling that established that freedom of speech applies online, we are still fighting for strong net neutrality rules that keeps the Internet open to all and does not favor one speech over another. While the Supreme Court’s Reno v. ACLU decision applied the same First Amendment protections to online speech as print, we are still fighting for reforms to the Electronic Communication Privacy Act to ensure that the same Fourth Amendment protections that apply to print apply to online communications.
Let’s celebrate 20 years of Reno v. ACLU, but remember that there is still work to be done to ensure that Constitutional rights apply with the same force in the digital world as it did in an analog one.
On Friday, April 11, 2014, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), along with the American Library Association, Association of College and Research Libraries, and other organizations, joined an amicus brief authored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Garcia v. Google. The brief urges the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reconsider its decision in this copyright case in which a 2-1 panel ruled in favor of Cindy Lee Garcia, one of the actors in the film Innocence of Muslims. Garcia claimed a copyright interest in her performance after being tricked into appearing in a five-second clip of the film and subsequently sought takedown of the film from YouTube, which is owned by Google.
The decision by the three-judge panel raises serious concerns as it alters the traditional contours of copyright and impacts the future of online free speech. The brief urges the Ninth Circuit to rehear this case en banc, so that the full court may reconsider these important issues.
For the first time in a judgment on the merits, the European Court of Human Rights has clarified that a conviction based on copyright law for illegally reproducing or publicly communicating copyright protected material can be regarded as an interference with the right of freedom of expression and information under Article 10 of the European Convention.