Internet Domain Seizure Program Rankles Free Speech Advocates

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A controversial Internet domain seizure program has notched another victory for the federal government even as free speech advocates continue to raise concerns.

The founder of NinjaVideo, a website that distributed pirated movies and TV shows for free on the Internet, pleaded guilty Friday to charges of conspiracy and criminal copyright infringement in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

Matthew David Smith, 23, of Raleigh, North Carolina, was arrested and his site closed down under a federal law enforcement program called Operation In Our Sites that involves several government agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Civil liberties groups have criticized the program because, they say, it is being undertaken without meaningful court oversight, with no chance for the targets to defend themselves before their websites are taken down and a highly cumbersome process for challenge afterward.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently filed court papers in New York attacking Operation In Our Sites.

A court is hearing an appeal of a lower court decision that upheld the seizure by ICE of two websites, and, owned by a Spanish company, Puerto 80.

ICE targeted the Puerto 80 sites because they contained links to live sport video streams, EFF explained, but the domain seizures impeded access to all of the content on the websites, including non-infringing content like user-created forums, discussions, and technical tutorials. Prior to the seizure, Spanish courts found that Puerto 80 had not violated that country's copyright law.

In the lower court decision, the judge ruled that domain seizures by ICE did not violate Puerto 80's First Amendment free speech rights. That's disputed by EFF.

"Domain name seizures are blunt instruments that cause unacceptable collateral damage to free speech rights," EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman said in a statement.

Meanwhile, when Smith appears at his sentencing hearing, scheduled for December 16, he'll be facing a maximum penalty of five years in prison for each count in his indictment.

According to court papers, Smith designed the operational elements of NinjaVideo and operated the site from February 2008 to June 2010, when it was seized during the first phase of Operation In Our Sites.

NinjaVideo distributed pirated copies of movies -- including some still showing in theaters and some not yet released -- to millions of visitors for free. It also collected donations for a premium offering that gave its members access to additional pirated material and a request service. That service allowed members to request specific pirated content that the website operators would attempt to find for the members on the Net.

Four others were arrested along with Smith earlier this month. A jury trial for the other defendants has been scheduled for February.

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