Late November last year, the news that 82 domains had been seized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was making headlines across the Internet. In particular, the seizure of the BitTorrent meta-search engine Torrent-Finder has been discussed widely.
The legitimacy of the Torrent-Finder domain seizure was questioned from the start, and the owner of the site is now fighting to get his domain back through an expensive legal procedure. In the past several weeks the authorities involved in the seizures have not responded to the critique, but at the Congressional Internet Caucus’ State of the ‘Net conference ICE director John Morton broke the silence.
“They were all knowingly engaged in the sale of counterfeit goods,” Morton said yesterday, defending the “Cyber Monday Crackdown” domain seizures. “We’re going to enforce the law. It’s that simple,” he added.
Now this is just flat out wrong, on more than one count.
For one, torrent sites are in no way connected to counterfeit goods. A counterfeit product is by definition an imitation of a product that is often sold to consumers as the real deal. The term applies to fake watches, clothing and other consumer goods, but certainly not to any of the digital files that can be found via search engines such as Torrent-Finder.
In addition, the ICE director claims that such counterfeit goods were sold at Torrent-Finder. Again, this is nowhere near the truth as virtually all torrent sites, Torrent-Finder included, offer their services to the public at no cost. There is nothing to be sold, and certainly not any counterfeit goods.
It has to be said that many of the seized domains were indeed involved in selling counterfeit products, but Torrent-Finder and several music linking sites weren’t. That said, Morton’s statement specifically includes all their seized sites, even though the controversial position of Torrent-Finder and the music linking sites were brought up at the conference.
The ICE director made quite a misstep with the statement we quoted above, and the worrying part is that it might even be unintentional. It wouldn’t surprise us if Morton has no idea what a torrent site actually is. The frequent mix-up between counterfeiting and digital piracy, however, is a worrying trend for sure.
Although we quoted less than two dozen words from Morton there is another part that we believe isn’t as “simple” as the ICE director claims. “We’re going to enforce the law,” he said, but that’s a stretched statement to say the least. What law is it, that mandates the seizure of a website that links to other websites that may link to files that could link to copyrighted material?
If there’s arguably any suspicion of a copyright infringement related offense committed by Torrent-Finder, wouldn’t it be a civil dispute under current law?
The documentation and the official response from ICE regarding the seizure of Torrent-Finder have “fail” written all over them. Not only is the response from Morton factually incorrect and inappropriate, but the original seizure warrant was also full of inaccuracies and misunderstandings as well.
The big question is whether it will matter in the end. The Government seems to be committed to a crackdown on piracy, and domain seizures are an effective tool to get sites down temporarily. It’s a grim outlook, but with the increased Government involvement in the Internet we fear that many sites may lose their domains in the coming year.