Here Come Homeland Security Internet Police, and They're Already Shutting Down Web Sites They Don't Like
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Last week, the Department of Homeland Security seized 82 domain names for allegedly hawking counterfeit goods ranging from knockoff Coach handbags to bootleg DVDs. Enacted under the auspices of its Immigrations and Customs Enforcement arm, the sites were wiped out and replaced with an ominous message from the DHS that laid out the stakes, including the warning, “Intentionally and knowingly trafficking in counterfeit goods is a federal crime that carries penalties for first-time offenders of up to 10 years in federal prison, a $2,000,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution.”
Most of the seized Web sites had names like thelouisvuittonoutlet.com and getdvdset.com, and sold reproductions of designer goods and hard copies of jacked movies. A few sites on the list, though, stuck out: Onsmash.com, rapgodfathers.com and dajaz1.com are popular music blogs that were generally involved in the promotion of artists, rather than outright piracy. Well-known among rap fans for posting the latest videos, singles and remixes (always hosted from third-party download sites), their seizure was shocking, not just to the hip-hop blogosphere, but to music sites everywhere. Their inclusion on a list of sites that profit from manufacturing hard goods seemed arbitrary and ignorant. Furthermore, these sites were directly involved with artists, widely viewed as outlets that could help artists build buzz and promote their upcoming albums.
And in what ICE termed its “Cyber Monday” crackdown, a statement on the official DHS site made it clear that this was only the beginning:
The coordinated federal law enforcement operation targeted online retailers of a diverse array of counterfeit goods, including sports equipment, shoes, handbags, athletic apparel and sunglasses as well as illegal copies of copyrighted DVD boxed sets, music and software.
But these rap blogs weren’t selling any music. They weren’t selling DVDs. In fact, the only thing you could accuse them of selling was ads -- hardly big income, definitely not enough to turn a profit. They aren’t even close to the biggest music downloading sites out there. So why were they targeted?
The DHS seems to be tiptoeing in the music pool, testing its boundaries and seeing what it can get away with. ICE began seizing domain names mere days after Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, blocked the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), a bill that would effectively allow the government to censor any Web site it sees fit, and one that is widely viewed as an attack on our free speech. The EFF:
When you type an address into a browser, the browser doesn’t just know where to take you. For that it counts on the globally distributed DNS system, which takes you to the specific IP address where the site is hosted. The DNS system is built on a basic foundation of trust -- a DNS provider can’t manipulate the results to stop you from going where you want to go on the Web.
COICA would subject DNS operators to government and industry pressure to intercept and block traffic to sites they don't like, and gives the Department of Justice the power to sue DNS operators to effectively disappear a site from one-click access on the Internet. There are some sites out there that are devoted primarily to posting copyrighted material, like torrent-tracking Web sites, but serious concerns have been raised the dragnet could be extended to file-storage utilities like Dropbox or to services like Facebook where large amounts of copyrighted material are easily stored and posted by users. Moreover, DNS blocking inherently targets entire Web sites, not just specific offending content, raising the troubling possibility that legal content and protected political speech on those websites would be censored in the United States.