US Immigration Services Blasted for Domain Seizures

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A sudden move last week to return a hip-hop site to its owner after it was seized and held by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a year has renewed criticism of the agency's domain confiscation program called In Our Sites.

Since its launch in June 2010, the initiative, spearheaded by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) directorate, has seized hundreds of websites for alleged intellectual property violations, including a raid on "Cyber Monday" that shut down 150 websites for selling or distributing counterfeit goods.

The home page after being seized. (Click to enlarge)

The return of the domain to its owner "Splash" provoked one of In Our Sites most vocal critics, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), to vow to probe the situation. “I expect the administration will be receiving a series of FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests from our office and that the senator will have very pointed questions with regard to how the administration chooses to target the sites that it does," Wynden spokesperson Jennifer Hoelzer told Wired Magazine.

She added that the senator was “particularly interested in learning how many secret dockets exist for copyright cases. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious precedent or explanation for that."

 Wyden, along with Sen. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-California), has previously questioned ICE and the U.S. Justice Department about its domain seizure program. Earlier this year, the duo wrote a letter containing a series of inquiries about In Our Sites. The answers to those interrogatories, though, didn't satisfy the senators.

The responses, Wydon declared, "reveal a single-minded determination to stamp out online infringement and demonstrate little if any understanding of the Internet’s value and function."

“Particularly troubling is their refusal to explain how linking is different than free speech," he added. "Given that hyperlinks in many ways form the foundation of the Internet, efforts to go after one site for linking to another site -- which the Administration is currently doing and the Protect IP Act would expand on -- threaten to do much more than protect IP."

The Protect IP Act in the U.S. Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House are measures aimed at broadening the authority of law enforcement agencies and private parties to shut down alleged pirate websites.

In August, ICE arrested a New York man, Mohamded Ali, 19, for operating two websites that provided links to other sites streaming pirated material on the Net. "Linking sites, like Ali's, provide links to other websites where pirated sporting and pay-per-view events are hosted," the agency said in a statement. "Linking sites are popular because they allow users to quickly browse content and locate illegal streams that would otherwise be more difficult to find."

The ICE seizure certificate (click to enlarge)

In Our Sites has rankled civil liberties advocates since it was launched. According to Congresswoman Lofgren, the program is nothing short of censorship. "[O]ur government has seized domains with nothing more than the rubber stamp of a magistrate, without any prior notice or adversarial process, leaving the authors of these sites with the burden of proving their innocence," she said.

"While this might be enough for the seizure of stolen cars or knock-off handbags, it is not enough for websites and speech on the Internet," she added. "It is disturbing that this administration is treating them the same."

Mark Lemley, director of the Stanford Program on Law, Science and Technology and who is representing a Spanish company that has been trying to recover some of its domain names seized by ICE, had harsher words for the feds. "I would have thought that ICE had more important things to deal with than playing rent-a-cop for the entertainment industry," he said Saturday on On The Media.

Should civil libertarians fail to squelch In Our Sites, the Internet underground has already begun preparing for workarounds to the seizure program. A Firefox extension called MAFIAAfire can detect a seized domain and reroute traffic around it. In addition, an outfit called BlockAide has set up its own DNS servers that will also guide users around any roadblocks on the information superhighway raised by the feds. 

Follow freelance technology writer John P. Mello Jr. and Today@PCWorld on Twitter.

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