Two U.S. government agencies have obtained seizure orders for the domain names of 82 websites accused of selling products that infringe copyright law, including music, movies and handbags.
The seizure orders, from courts in eight states and Washington, D.C., have allowed the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to shut down sites including Torrent-finder.com, DVDscollection.com, Sunglasses-mall.com, and NFLjerseysupply.com, officials from the agencies said Monday.
News reports of multiple site closures surfaced in the past few days, but officials with the two agencies talked about the actions during a press conference Monday.
"With today's seizures, we are disrupting the sale of thousands of counterfeit items," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. "We are cutting off funds to those looking to profit from the sale of illegal goods and exploit the ingenuity of others. And, as the holiday shopping season gets under way, we are also reminding consumers to exercise caution when looking for deals and discounts online. To put it simply: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is."
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a digital rights group, questioned whether the seizures were legal when website operators had no warning and no chance to fight the actions in court. The seizures raise concerns about violations of free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution, said David Sohn, senior policy counsel at CDT.
A U.S. copyright statute allows law enforcement to seize "any property" used to infringe copyright, but police have generally used the statute to seize manufacturing equipment. Recent efforts to seize domain names under the statute may mean that the DOJ and ICE are shutting down free speech on some of those sites, Sohn said.
"Domain names are essentially forums for free expression and communication," he said. "Obviously, websites can also be forums for illegal activity, but seizing domain names without any [legal] adversary process, without any opportunity for the affected parties to get notice of the action, it carries the risk that legitimate websites and legitimate speech could end up being suppressed."
Sohn also questioned if the tactic would be effective. Many of the sites shut down in recent days may pop up under new domain names, he said.
Sites targeted by the two agencies displayed a notice on their home pages saying that ICE had seized the domain names. "Willful copyright infringement is a federal crime that carries penalties for first time offenders of up to five years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution," the notices read. "Intentionally and knowingly trafficking in counterfeit goods is a federal crime that carries penalties for first time offenders of up to ten years in federal prison, a $2,000,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution."
Some commentators questioned the seizure of Torrent-finder.com, a search engine for BitTorrent files that didn't host any files itself. Another version of the site remained online at Torrent-finder.info Monday morning.
ICE "went way beyond its mandate to seize a whole bunch of domain names," wrote Mike Masnick, founder of the TechDirt blog. "Many of the operators of the domain names seized in this round state they hadn't received any notification of complaints, let alone demands to be taken down."
The seizure of search engines is "ridiculous," Masnick added. "For anyone who actually understands how the internet works (i.e., clearly not Homeland Security) this is a massively troubling move, suggesting that if Homeland Security doesn't like how your search engine works, it can simply seize your domain and put up a really scary looking graphic, claiming it has taken over your website," he wrote.
Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised the action by the DOJ and ICE. The seizures targeted "rogue websites," said Leahy, who has sponsored legislation this year that would make it easier for the DOJ to shut down infringing websites.
"The innovative use of the tools currently available to law enforcement to seize these domain names is similar to the remedy that would be specifically authorized under the bipartisan Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act for websites that are registered in the United States," Leahy said in a statement. "We can no longer sit on the sidelines while American intellectual property is stolen and sold online using our own infrastructure. This costs American jobs, hurts our economy, and puts consumers at risk."
CDT has raised the same concerns about the Leahy legislation that it has for the DOJ and ICE action. The Leahy bill would make it clear that such actions are legal, Sohn said.
Also cheering the seizures was Mitch Bainwol, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America.
"Federal law enforcement authorities have now hung a 'closed for business' sign on some of the most notorious music websites that were havens for copyright theft," he said in a statement. "No anti-piracy initiative is a silver bullet, but targeted government enforcement against the worst of the worst rogue sites sends a strong message that illegally trafficking in creative works carries real consequences and won't be tolerated."
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.