Government Lacks Probable Cause to Request Identities of Facebook Users

Oct. 12, 2017

Government Lacks Probable Cause to Request Identities of Facebook Users

Public Citizen Represents Facebook Users Seeking to Intervene in Court Case

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The government has not established a compelling reason to enforce a search warrant demanding the identification of thousands of anonymous Internet users who “liked” an inauguration protest page or “friended” the media contacts for the group, Public Citizen told a court late Wednesday.

Public Citizen filed a motion (PDF) to intervene on behalf of three anonymous Does who were Facebook friends with either of the media contacts, Lacy MacAuley or Legba Carrefour; who sent messages to their accounts or “liked” any of the content on their timelines; or who “liked” the Facebook page of DisruptJ20, a coalition planning protests for President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The motion will be argued at 2:15 p.m. EDT on Friday.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed the search warrant as part of a criminal prosecution against the 230 people arrested during the counter-inaugural actions on Jan. 20. Facebook is resisting the warrant. Through the motion to intervene, Public Citizen is asking the judge to allow the individuals whose rights are at risk to be heard in the proceeding.

The Does’ brief asks Chief Judge Robert Morin of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to protect their First Amendment right to speak and read anonymously, especially against a government that is “increasingly hostile to dissent,” the motion states.

Moreover, Facebook has given notice only to the account holders named in the government’s search warrant, but not to the thousands of other account holders whose anonymity is at risk, the motion states. The Does have asked the judge to ensure that such notice is given to all those whose anonymity is threatened, so that they can seek court protection against government snooping into their political associations and expression.

Public Citizen also represented anonymous visitors to the DisruptJ20 website who were subject to a similar search warrant.

“Once again, the government is taking advantage of the misconduct of a small number of protestors to try to snoop into the identities of thousands of innocent people who did nothing more than connect to Internet sites that opposed Trump’s inauguration,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney representing the Does. “We hope that Judge Morin will have even less patience with these efforts than he displayed in regard to the search warrant served on DreamHost.”

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