During the last year the U.S. Government seized more than 100 domain names it claims were promoting copyright infringement.
The actions of the authorities were met with disbelief by the sites’ owners and their millions of visitors. But those directly involved weren’t the only ones complaining.
Several legal experts believe that the domain seizures may stifle free-speech, and have further pointed out that the lack of due process could be a violation of the U.S. constitution. In this assessment they were joined by several politicians.
Two of the most outspoken politicians are U.S Senator Ron Wyden and Rep. Zoe Lofgren. In an attempt to get some much-needed answers to their questions, they asked the responsible authorities to explain how effective the seizures are and whether they are legitimate.
This week they got a response, but not the one they were looking for. Although Homeland Security’s ICE unit finally responded after three months, the politicians found the answers to be insufficient, as all the major issues were simply avoided.
“It is hard to imagine that the administration can effectively deter online copyright infringement when they refuse to answer basic questions regarding what they believe constitutes infringement,” U.S Senator Ron Wyden commented.
“While the departments finally responded to questions that I sent them more than three months ago, the responses from ICE and DOJ reveal a single-minded determination to stamp out online infringement and demonstrate little if any understanding of the Internet’s value and function,” he added.
One of the hot topics has been the seizure of the Torrent-Finder website, a meta-search engine that doesn’t host or link to any copyrighted files directly. We previously pointed out that many mistakes were made during the investigation into this site, and Wyden and Lofgren specifically asked why this site would be deemed to aid in criminal copyright infringement.
How is Torrent-Finder different from other search engines like Google and Bing, and how does criminalizing hyperlinks effect free-speech, they questioned. But answers didn’t come.
“Particularly troubling is their refusal to explain how linking is different from free speech. Given that hyperlinks in many ways form the foundation of the Internet, efforts to go after one site for linking to another site – which the Administration is currently doing and the Protect IP Act would expand on – threaten to do much more than protect IP,” Wyden said.
“There are many actions that we can all agree the Administration can and should be taking to crack down on counterfeiting of U.S. goods and the illegal sale of U.S. IP products that don’t involve advancing novel and unsupportable theories like holding sites liable for linking,” the Senator added.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren was disappointed by the non-response from ICE as well, and characterizes the domain seizures as an act of censorship.
“ICE’s response fails to address legitimate concerns about ‘Operation In Our Sites.’ Domain seizures without due process are a form of censorship. In this instance, our government has seized domains with nothing more than the rubber stamp of a magistrate, without any prior notice or adversarial process, leaving the authors of these sites with the burden of proving their innocence,” she said in a response.
“While this might be enough for the seizure of stolen cars or knock-off handbags, it is not enough for web sites and speech on the Internet. It is disturbing that this administration is treating them the same,” Lofgren added.
The response from ICE shows that they have no intention of explaining their actions, and that they will continue seizing domains without answering some of the core questions that have been asked. And that’s not all – things may soon get much more disturbing.
Earlier this week we reported that the U.S. Government is working on a revamped version of the COICA bill, named the Protect IP Act. This bill is designed specifically to make the domain seizures most effective, and give the authorities even broader powers such as censoring search engines and ordering ISPs to block websites.
Last time around Senator Wyden was able to stop COICA from being implemented, but with a lot of backing in Washington and Hollywood the Protect IP Act might be harder to stop. There’s no doubt that yet more questions will be asked in the coming months, but it is doubtful that meaningful answers will follow.