Groups Vow to Fight Gov't Takedowns of Websites

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the operator of Torrent-finder.com have separately vowed to fight domain-name seizures by two U.S. agencies in recent days.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced Monday that they have obtained court orders to seize the domain names and shut down 82 websites suspected of trafficking in copyright-infringing materials, including music, movies, sunglasses and handbags.

But representatives of the EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology, two digital rights groups, questioned whether the domain-name seizures are legal. In some cases, the sites shut down had discussion forums that should enjoy free-speech protections under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, said Peter Eckersley, an EFF staff attorney.

Some of the websites had "huge amounts of user commentary, virtually millions of posts worth of discussion," Eckersley said. "We'll be looking into that and seeing whether there are any legal steps that can be taken to help these websites."

One such site taken down was Torrent-finder.com, a search engine for BitTorrent files operating since 2005. Operator Waleed GadElKareem of Alexandria, Egypt, promised to fight the domain-name seizure, even though he had his website operating at Torrent-finder.info on Monday.

"My domain was seized without any previous complaint or court notice to me or to the domain registrar GoDaddy," he wrote in an e-mail. "I still have my server running in USA with a new domain ... because they are 100 percent sure I am not doing anything wrong."

GadElKareem questioned the legality of the DOJ and ICE shutting down a search engine. "I only open other search engines in iframes, so I do not host or link to any illegal contents," he said. "These actions are not responsible or legal."

As of Tuesday morning, Torrent-finder.info had about 15,000 posts in its discussion forum.

The DOJ and ICE actions raise several questions, Eckersley said. "We're pretty concerned about the lack of a process whereby sites can defend themselves before being taken down," he said.

In some cases, the sites taken down appeared to host discussion forums about musical artists and appeared to provide publicity for some artists, Eckersley added. "We're also just worried that going down this road is potentially going to hurt artists as much as it helps them," he said.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) allows copyright holders to find infringing files and send takedown notices to website operators, Eckersley added. "While we have some concerns about that ... at least they're specifically targeted at infringing files," he said. "What we're seeing here is the nuke-the-whole-website approach."

But several other groups praised the domain-name seizures.

"The federal government ... engaged in a broad crackdown on dozens of the most notorious websites that illegally sell and distribute counterfeit goods and copyrighted works, including stolen digital content and movie and television boxed sets," Bob Pisano, president and Interim CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, said in a statement. "These 'worst of the worst' rogue websites, which cloak themselves in respectability yet traffic in counterfeit and stolen goods, victimize not only the buyers of these products, but the more than 2.4 million hardworking Americans whose livelihoods depend on a healthy motion picture and television industry."

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 grant_gross@idg.com.

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