US official defends domain seizures for copyright violations

The director of U.S. ICE defends the recent seizure of more than 80 domain names of websites accused of copyright infringement.

The November seizures of more than 80 domain names by two U.S. government agencies were justified and necessary to project U.S. copyright holders, said the director of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The recent seizures, following the seizure of eight domain names in June, were controversial, but reviewed by judges, ICE director John Morton said Tuesday. In "every single case," federal investigators were able to obtain materials that infringe copyright from the websites that had their domain names seized, Morton said during a speech at the Congressional Internet Caucus' State of the 'Net conference.

"They were all knowingly engaged in the sale of counterfeit goods," Morton said. "We're going to enforce the law. It's that simple."

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ICE, through its seizures, wants to help ensure that the Internet has a "sense of credibility, a sense of safety," Morton added.

ICE and the U.S. Department of Justice announced in late November they had seized the domains of 82 websites after getting permission from magistrate judges. In most cases, the sites were selling counterfeit goods such as sunglasses and sports jerseys, while most of the controversy centered around about five sites focused on music or movies, Morton said.

The operators of Torrent-finder.com, a BitTorrent search engine, and two hip-hop music blogs, have questioned why their domain names were seized. ICE and the DOJ "spent a lot of time" examining the websites, and the agencies did not honor all of the requests to take action that they received from copyright holders, Morton said.

The owners of those sites can challenge the seizures in court, Morton added. The seizures have also started a lively debate about copyright protections in the U.S., and "that's a good thing," he added.

Other speakers at the conference questioned the legality and effectiveness of the seizures and of a bill, the Combating Online Infringements and Counterfeits Act (COICA), introduced in September by Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. COICA, which would expand the DOJ's powers to seize domain names, failed to pass through Congress before November's elections, although supporters have called for Leahy to reintroduce the legislation this year.

It's easy for websites to move to a different domain or for users to find them through alternative domains or through Internet Protocol addresses, said David Sohn, senior policy counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology, an online civil liberties group.

The seizures will be "quickly and easily circumvented" by the sites and their users, Sohn said.

The seizures may prompt many U.S. Internet users to use alternative domains in other countries, raising concerns about security and privacy, added Dan Kaminsky, a security researcher. "If the question is, 'Will COICA effectively stop online piracy,' the answer is a flat no," he said.

If the U.S. decides it can seize domain names for copyright, it may not be long before other groups begin demanding seizures for other reasons, Sohn said. And U.S. seizures may give other countries cover to seize domains for a variety of reasons, he said.

"What happens when you have 250 countries out there that are all looking at, 'Wow, apparently it's OK for us to unilaterally block sites?'" Kaminsky added.

But Andrew Pincus, a lawyer with Mayer Brown, defended website seizures, saying it can a useful way to fight copyright infringement. "Nothing's perfect," he said. "The question to me is, can we give law enforcement the tools that will at least help to shut things down?"

Pincus challenged Sohn and Kaminsky to offer better solutions for combating copyright infringement online.

"Arrest the bad guys," Kaminsky said.

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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