In a court hearing today, the Department of Justice dropped its request for the names of an estimated 6,000 people who “liked” a Facebook page about an Inauguration Day protest, the American Civil Liberties Union said. The ACLU challenged several warrants related to protests against President Trump’s inauguration on Friday, one of which included the search, claiming they were over-broad.
Specifically, the warrants target the Facebook profiles of two activists and an anti-Trump Facebook page, and the data turned over could have included the names of an estimated 6,000 people who simply “liked” the page. However, DOJ lawyers said during the hearing that they would no longer seek the list of names, the ACLU said. A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“The best aspect of the hearing was the judge clearly seemed to understand that the government asked for more than it needed,” Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s DC branch, told Gizmodo after the hearing. “Ultimately, I think the question will be what kind of limits the judge orders.”
The case is the second known attempt by the DOJ to collect large swaths of data about people who participated in the January 20th protests. The DOJ also demanded that web hosting company DreamHost hand over the IP addresses of 1.3 million visitors to an anti-Trump website, disruptj20.org, but eventually dropped its request for the IP logs and had the scope of its warrant further narrowed by a judge.
In this case, the Justice Department had asked Facebook to turn over all the information generated from two activists’ personal accounts between November 1st, 2016 and February 9th, 2017. The third warrant targeted the “Disrupt J20" Facebook page itself, which was liked by thousands people during the same period. In addition to excluding the list of people who had liked the page, DOJ lawyers indicated that they would no longer seek photographs from the activists’ accounts that were posted prior to January 20.
“Every demonstration that these folks attended or advertised or took pictures of, the other people who were there, whether they were expressing their political views—all of that will be available to the government. Same with private messages. In one case, a person’s medical information; in another case, a discussion of one person’s experience of domestic violence,” Michelman said. “We have moved to quash the warrants as over-broad and an invasion of privacy.”
The warrants were initially accompanied by a gag order, which the DOJ dropped in September after Facebook moved to challenge it. Facebook then notified the three activists that they were being targeted.
“Last month, we successfully fought to be able to notify the three people whose broad account information was requested by the government. Now that they have exercised their rights to contest the government’s warrants, we believe their arguments deserve a fair and full hearing,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
“My biggest concern here is the warrants, if carried out, will give information about anti-administration protesters to the very administration they are protesting. And that is very chilling of speech,” Michelman said.