On Black Friday, a day known to be one of the busiest shopping days of the year, the U.S. government seized the Web addresses of over 70 websites involved in alleged counterfeit good sales and copyright infringement. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security seized the Web addresses, known as domain names, pursuant to a warrant authorized by civil forfeiture provisions 18 U.S.C. 981 and 2323. Internet users attempting to visit the affected sites were redirected to a government issued takedown notice.
Seized websites included a number of purveyors of counterfeit luxury goods, as well as torrent-finder.com, a BitTorrent search engine, and other file-sharing related sites. The takedown notice displayed on the seized websites specifically mentions copyright infringement and counterfeit good trafficking as targets of the action. This ICE action followed a similar round of seizures in June, which targeted websites involved in television and movie piracy.
Unlike the seizure of counterfeit goods in a brick and mortar store, seizing domain names curbs piracy in a more indirect manner. Every domain name, such as “nytimes.com,” is linked with a specific IP address. When an internet user inputs a web address in a browser, it is translated to its respective IP address on a domain name server. ICANN, a non-profit formed by the U.S. government, oversees this domain name system, and in the specific cases of “.com” and “.net” these registries are operated by VeriSign. Consequently, the domain names are said to reside on servers in the U.S., although the content of the websites themselves may be owned and operated from anywhere.
Theoretically, one could still access the websites of the seized domains by inputting their respective IP addresses directly. In practice, most web traffic to these sites would be stopped by the seizure; however, determined users could find the IP address and continue to access them. Alternatively, owners of the seized domains could easily relocate to new domains, which apparently several have already done.
The recent round of seizures followed a Senate committee approval of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), aimed at making it easier for the government to shut down sites alleged to be involved in piracy. The bill, which has garnered support from the usual suspects of content providers which includes the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), is also criticized by others as potentially infringing on free speech rights. Under the COICA, a domain name could be seized if it “has no demonstrable, commercially significant purpose or use other than” offering or providing access to unauthorized copies of copyrighted works. Peter Eckersley, of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argues that the COICA will not help content creators get paid for online distribution, will undermine the domain name system, and could bring back harmful Hollywood blacklists.