The website www.disruptj20.org, a DreamHost web hosting customer, was used to coordinate protests on January 20, 2016, when Donald Trump was inaugurated. Federal prosecutors then issued a warrant seeking every piece of information possessed by Los Angeles-based DreamHost that was related to the ‘anti-Trump’ website, including IP addresses of the site’s 1.3 million visitors.
HostingJournalist.com sat down with DreamHost Co-CEO and Co-Founder, Michael Rodriguez, to ask him how he looks back on the warrant and to talk about his fast-growing hosting company.
It’s a few months later now, how do you look back on the situation?
“Our opinion of that warrant hasn’t changed since the day it was served on us. We considered it to be a clear overreach of investigative power by the Department of Justice. We opposed it on those grounds and those grounds only. For us, the data request represented a clear threat to internet user privacy. Many have asked us to speculate on the government’s motivations for ‘digging so deep,’ but we never really felt a need to do so. It was a privacy issue for us, not a political one.”
“Public reaction was unexpectedly…enormous. Media outlets worldwide were contacting us for comment throughout the duration of the case. Hundreds of members of the public took the time to contact us to offer their support. We were overwhelmed with messages of encouragement, and those messages confirmed that we were doing something important.
“Internet user privacy is an issue that transcends political ideologies, so our cause was effectively universal, and the feedback we received reflected that. For many Internet users, this was personal, and they let us know in no uncertain terms that they appreciated us taking a stand on their behalf.”
Why didn’t DreamHost comply with the prosecutor requests?
“The requests raised problematic First and Fourth Amendment questions for us. Those people that used the website for its intended purpose were using it to express political speech which is protected under the First Amendment. Further, any people who were not the subject of a criminal investigation and simply visited the website, including journalists, educators, and curious people with no ill intent, were in danger of having their contact information handed over to the Department of Justice. That could have set a dangerous precedent that we weren’t entirely comfortable with. We saw something, so we said something. We felt obligated to do so.”
Later on, the scope of the search warrant was substantially narrowed. Did this change prove you right?
“The change showed that we were able to make a compelling case to the court, so much so that the Department of Justice felt it needed to alter its original request or else risk having its entire request thrown out of court.”
Were you satisfied with the narrowed scope of the warrant?
“It helped to assuage a lot of our concerns, but it didn’t go far enough for us. There were still parts of the warrant that remained problematic for us so we chose to press on with a courtroom challenge to the warrant. Chief Judge Morin of the Superior Court of Washington D.C. took the time to examine the DOJ’s initial warrant along with their amendment and weighed them against our concerns.”
“It turns out our persistence was warranted, as the court chose to impose several restrictions on how the data that DreamHost was ultimately directed to hand over was used by the government. We considered it to be a true victory not just for DreamHost, but for all online service providers that host customer-generated content.”
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What data did you have to hand over in the end?
“We have complied with the court’s order and have handed over heavily redacted data, which itself is drawn from a small fraction of the information sought in the Department of Justice’s original warrant request. The information we produced based on the final warrant was similar in scope to other valid, legal court orders we comply with on a daily basis. This was a huge deal. Our intention from the very beginning was not to refuse compliance with the order; it was to strike the overreaching requests and morph the original warrant into a valid, legal order.”
Chris Ghazarian, DreamHost’s General Counsel, called the warrant “pure prosecutorial overreach by a highly politicized Department of Justice.” Can you elaborate just a bit on that?
“After we realized that the scope of the initial search warrant was extremely overbroad, we contacted the Department of Justice and tried to discuss their intentions, particularly with the request for 1.3 million visitor IP addresses. Instead of answering our questions, the DOJ filed a court order against DreamHost to compel production of the data.”
“Since the DOJ offered no explanation for the request and no legal arguments to support their position, we were prepared to challenge the warrant and preserve Internet users’ First Amendment rights from a potentially overreaching government action. Our position was validated when the Department of Justice voluntarily withdrew the request for IP addresses two days before the initial court hearing date.”
What implications would a politicized U.S. Department of Justice have for the hosting business in general, with regards to customer privacy and website take-down procedures?
“Privacy has, in recent years, become more and more of a very public concern among all internet users. High-profile data breaches and revelations about the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs have heightened the public’s awareness and sensitivity to matters of Internet privacy.”
“Any guesses about the origins of the original order would be speculation.”
“We would encourage all online service providers, not just hosts like ourselves, to closely evaluate the merits of each and every subpoena and warrant that comes their way, even if it may be an economic struggle to do so. You can’t put a price on user privacy, and you have an obligation to your users to ensure that their legal rights are protected.”
Enough about the warrant, let’s talk about DreamHost, about the company itself. DreamHost currently has more than 200 employees and three offices in the U.S.
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What are your goals and perspectives for the coming two years?
“We’re expecting steady growth in the years ahead. With three offices full of talented people in the US, we plan to remain focused on the needs of our users.”
“We continue to create custom workflows for agencies and resellers that help them find success online. Our customers expect continuous innovation from DreamHost, and we plan to surprise and delight them in the months ahead.”
DreamHost has its infrastructure mainly located in the U.S.; do you have plans for further expansion into Europe and/or Asia as well?
“International marketing will be a focus for DreamHost in 2018. We have customers in nearly every country in the world and we plan to build upon that foundation with support for additional languages. You can expect to see that change in the not-too-distant future.”
What kinds of customers is DreamHost targeting the most right now, and in what way has your customer base changed since you founded the company about 20 years ago?
“Twenty years ago, the web was a very different place. General purpose web hosting ruled the marketplace. You’d get a domain name, an empty directory, and what you did after that point was entirely up to you. Some early content creators were eager to build websites from scratch or with rudimentary tools that allowed them to eke out their own personal corner of the web. Businesses were just getting started and it was rare to see domain names in TV commercials.
Over the years various web apps have sprung up, and their users have grown increasingly more sophisticated. WordPress in particular powers over a quarter of the Internet’s most popular websites, and among our users its popularity and use is exploding. We are actively targeting WordPress users, with a focus on small businesses and content creators. We’ve seen an enormous and growing interest in Managed WordPress services, an area where we’ve been leading for over a decade.”
“We’re heavily engaged in the WordPress community, and we are actively involved in growing its robust and engaged ecosystem. Democratizing publishing is a cause that we fully support.”
In 2016, DreamHost introduced its managed WordPress solution, DreamPress. What’s the importance of this solution within the overall DreamHost product portfolio?
“DreamHost was a very, very early adopter of WordPress. Back when it was ‘just’ a blogging tool, we understood its potential to revolutionize publishing online and were excited about what it meant for the future of the web.”
“Users have always been able to install and use WordPress across our entire managed hosting platform. We’ve provided an automated installation tool, automatic updates, and automated security scans to help get our users up and running in a short amount of time and reduce the amount of time they spend maintaining the technical parts of their website.”
“Given WordPress’ incredible footprint across the web, we decided a few years ago to creative customized workflows for WordPress users to deliver one of the best WordPress experiences in the world. We took years of learnings in seeing first-hand how WordPress impacts a web server and how its databases perform, and we poured all of that knowledge into building DreamPress. The end result is a managed WordPress platform purpose-built for WordPress.”
“DreamPress users don’t have to fiddle with things like caching plugins or obscure software settings to get the best performance out of WordPress. Backed by the power of our own advanced cloud infrastructure, DreamPress really ‘just works’ and user feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.”
HostingJournalist.com has also heard that DreamHost is planning to target developers more and more – how does that relate to the managed WordPress solution and ongoing product focuses?
“We’ve always provided tools to help web developers get up and running quickly. We’re increasingly seeing a new breed of web developer take advantage of DreamPress – WordPress plugin authors. They’re looking for a rock-solid WordPress platform to build and test their plugins, and for them, DreamPress has been a great fit.”
“Being software developers ourselves, we continually work to provide users with the tools and a platform that makes deployment of code easy and reliable. DreamHost remains a great platform for general web development work as well.”
DreamHost has a nice product suite, including DreamPress, DreamCompute, and DreamObjects. What are your thoughts/strategy on striking the right balance between marketing and technology within the web hosting business?
“Technical people are extremely wary of being ‘sold to,’ and often go to great lengths to isolate themselves from any form of online marketing messaging. We know because we do this ourselves! We respect those preferences and try to lead our messaging with a focus on helping our customers be successful.”
“All of our product design decisions are directly influenced by customer feedback. Everything. We’ve found that when you build products that your customers are actually asking for, selling them becomes a whole lot easier. At that point, it’s really just a matter of carefully and respectfully promoting products that fulfill their needs.”
What are your goals in terms of product expansion and/or adjustments to the DreamHost product portfolio?
“We have what we believe is a strong-looking product roadmap for 2018, with a huge focus on our managed WordPress offering. What you’ve seen from DreamPress so far is just the tip of the iceberg, and we’ve got an enormous backlog of user requests and in-progress enhancements to work through. We expect to see increased and aggressive DreamPress adoption across the next 48 months as we roll out tons of these feature enhancements.”
DreamHost is a staunch proponent of open source software and supporter of OpenStack. You even have the slogan ‘Embrace Open Source’ painted on the office walls, as an integral part of the company’s values. Why does DreamHost have such a strong open source ethos?
“The rise in popularity of open source software lined up very neatly with the early days of DreamHost. We were frugal in those days, as any self-funded startup had to be. Open source web servers and tools were free, plentiful, and met our needs for delivering an inexpensive and well-supported hosting service. DreamHost owes its legacy to the power of open source software, and we will always adopt open source software over commercial software when it makes sense.”
“We also created Ceph, a distributed file system popular in the cloud world. Ceph was created to store petabytes of data across thousands of servers in a way that had never been done before with off-the-shelf hardware. Ceph is used extensively at DreamHost and at many other large companies.”
Can you mention and explain the other values painted on DreamHost’s office walls?
“In fact, ‘Embrace Open Source’ is just the first of our eight core values. The others are ‘Speak Hacker,’ ‘Be Irreverent and Fun,’ ‘Empower People,’ ‘Give Everyone a Voice,’ ‘Provide Outstanding Service,’ ‘Practice Shameless Honesty,’ and ‘Practice Flexibility.’ These values influence everything that we do at DreamHost and guide us as an organization. We’ve also established an internal ‘Values Squad’ that meets regularly to discuss whether or not we’re living up to those commitments.
What are the key secrets and strategies of maintaining a healthy company culture?
“Listen to your team! A lot of organizations claim to have an “open door policy,” but they’re usually just paying it lip service. We use employee feedback to shape our products and improve our workplace. DreamHost has been recognized every year for the last decade as being a freedom-centered workplace by the WorldBlu organization. We’ve completely embraced the philosophy of organizational democracy. By giving our employees a voice in how our business is both structured and run, we’ve found that they’re much more likely to stay engaged and happy over time!”
What have been the most difficult steps to take on your growth path?
“The industry has changed and customer expectations have changed with it. Interest in general purpose hosting has declined while interest in custom-built solutions like Managed WordPress has exploded, so we’ve been forced to innovate and deliver value-adds that live on top of our already robust hosting infrastructure. That has involved a lot of pivoting and market evaluation over the years, but we’ve gotten very good at it!”
To conclude, if you had to compare DreamHost to an animal, what would it be and why?
“A giraffe. They’re big, but they’ve got a solid foundation. They’ve got their heads held high, up in the clouds, right where our cloud hosting and computing services happen to live. Every spot represents a user and their data. And also, they’ve got long tongues. That has nothing to do with computers, but we like it.”