82 Websites Iced by ICE on Cyber Monday: A Preview of COICA?

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced on Monday that it had executed court approved seizure orders "against 82 domain names of commercial websites engaged in the illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit goods and copyrighted works as part of Operation In Our Sites v. 2.0."

Operation In Our Sites is an ICE initiative aimed at Internet counterfeiting and piracy that began earlier this year with seizure warrants against nine domain names of websites that were offering first-run movies.

The ICE press release for Operation In Our Sites v. 2.0 said that the "... 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."

The 82 websites shut down can be found here (view PDF list). If you visit any of the sites such as usaoutlets.net you will see a message from ICE stating that, "This site has been seized by ICE - Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by a United States District Court under authority of 18 U.S.C. Sections 981 and 2323," along with a warning of the penalties for copyright infringement and the trafficking in counterfeiting goods.

According to this story at PCWorld, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the operator of Torrent-finder.com (one fo the sites seized) are saying they are going to fight the domain-name seizures.

The EFF, in commenting on the ICE action, says that "these seizures may be just a short preview of the kind of overreaching enforcement we’ll see if the Congress passes the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA)."

I recently blogged about COICA and the worries that many prominent law professors and Internet engineers have about the proposed law.

As this blog post at Techdirt notes, "Two more of the seized sites, RapGodfathers and OnSmash are popular hip hop blogs. In fact, both sites note that labels and artists regularly send them their own music, and both sites note that they comply with the DMCA in taking down files based on takedown notices."

The EFF also says that the action is ineffective since the sites will merely quickly move elsewhere, outside the reach of US law enforcement. Torrent-finder, which is a BitTorrent site search engine operating since 2005, is reported by The Inquirer to have resumed operations a few hours after its site was shut down under a .info domain name which US law enforcement can't easily touch.

The PCWorld article quotes TorrentFinder Operator Waleed GadElKareem of Alexandria, Egypt, as saying:

"I only open other search engines in iframes, so I do not host or link to any illegal contents. These actions are not responsible or legal."

There is a long and interesting blog post here by well-known IT author and law professor Larry Downes on the legality of the seizures, which in his opinion, seems stretch the civil forfeiture law.

Not surprisingly, the Motion Picture Association of America praised the seizures, saying in this press release:

"These 'worst of the worst' rogue websites, which cloak themselves in respectability yet traffic in counterfeit and stolen goods, victimize not only the buyers of these products, but the more than 2.4 million hardworking Americans whose livelihoods depend on a healthy motion picture and television industry. We thank the Department of Justice and ICE for their continuing efforts in addressing this serious problem."

I suspect many if not most of the websites probably deserved to be shut down, but I also have concerns that  legitimate sites may also have unfairly been affected. Perhaps over the course of the next few days or weeks the US Government's specific reasons for seizing each site will be available for scrutiny.

As the EFF has noted, if the US Government - which promises more such seizures in the future - can do this without COICA, imagine what it could do with COICA.

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