…but maybe—hopefully—not a disturbing precedent.
Yes, it’s troubling to think about why the DOJ wanted those visitor logs, but it’s even more disturbing to consider the precedent that would have been set had this subpoena (1) been complied with, and (2) remained secret. The Justice Department had an obvious reason for wanting to keep the subpoena secret even after it had been withdrawn—to prevent future web admins from having something to refer to.
This is an occurrence that would, no doubt, receive widespread attention on the internet if Indymedia or the EFF were allowed to mention it, and the DOJ knew it. Even if it didn’t get widespread media attention, it would still be all over websites like Digg, Reddit, and BoingBoing, where people who care about these issues (and might be subject to a similar subpoena someday) would read about it and learn what their rights would be in the same situation. Thankfully, Indymedia’s EFF lawyer challenged the unofficial gag order and this story became public. It might not prevent the DOJ from attempting to subpoena websites in the future, but now at least site admins have a precedent to rely on.
On a more fun, law school-related note, the EFF attorney objected to procedural defects in his reply to the DOJ, including improper service and the need for a judge-issued court order to obtain the logs. What a great lesson in how the rules of procedure can help or harm you. 😉