Group: U.S. anti-Internet piracy campaign violates First Amendment

By Eric W. Dolan
Thursday, June 23, 2011 18:17 EDT
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The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged a federal court to return two domain names seized as part of the U.S. government’s “Operation in Our Sites,” an ongoing campaign against websites that illegally provide access to copyrighted material.

“This misguided intellectual property enforcement effort is causing serious collateral damage to free speech rights,” said EFF Intellectual Property Director Corynne McSherry. “These domain seizures should cease unless and until the government can fix the First Amendment flaws inherent in the program.”

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) announced in February that the domain names of ten “linking” websites had been seized for allegedly providing access to illegal, pirated telecasts of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, World Wrestling Entertainment, and the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Visitors to these websites now only see a banner that says the domain name was seized by the New York office of ICE HSI because of criminal copyright violations.

The websites did not themselves host any illegal content, but allowed users to easily browse for links to third party websites that were hosting pirated videos, according to ICE.

EFF’s amicus brief (PDF) was filed in support of a petition from Puerto 80, the Spanish company that owns the streaming sites Rojadirecta.com and Rojadirecta.org, which were both seized by ICE.

A Spanish court found the sites did not violate copyright law.

“Neither the government nor rightsholders should fear a copyright enforcement process that complies with the rule of law,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Matt Zimmerman. “Valid claims of copyright infringement can be pursued in a manner that allows the accused parties to defend themselves. The unilateral seizure of domain names without a court ruling — which obstructs access to all of a website’s content — is improper and should be strongly opposed by free speech advocates everywhere.”

ICE has seized a total of 125 domain names as part of their ongoing anti-infringement campaign.

The domain seizures have been carried out under a procedure that allows the government to seize physical property that has been used in the commission of a crime, a strategy questioned by Members of Congress. The Supreme Court has ruled that seizures without prior notice must be limited to “extraordinary situations where some valid government interest is at stake” — a narrowly-drawn exception that would not appear to apply to cases of copyright violation.

Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan
Eric W. Dolan has served as an editor for Raw Story since August 2010, and is based out of Sacramento, California. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and received a Bachelor of Science from Bradley University. Eric is also the publisher and editor of PsyPost. You can follow him on Twitter @ewdolan.
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