Updated, below: JotForm back online, Secret Service confirms involvement
An online startup called JotForm said this week that it was kicked off its .com Internet domain by host GoDaddy, allegedly at the request of the U.S. Secret Service.
It’s not yet clear why JotForm, which allows users to create and embed interactive online documents, was taken down. The site’s owner claims he was not given advance notice, and that authorities have not even told him why his business is effectively shuttered.
In a blog post on their new secondary domain, co-founder Aytekin Tank stressed that they are fully cooperating with authorities. Problem is, Tank explained, despite his best efforts, the authorities simply haven’t been in touch.
In an explanation to Hacker News, the site’s founder explained that he contacted the Secret Service agent in charge of his case, only to be told that she was too busy to address his concerns right away, and that it might not happen for a few days.
“Our guess is that this is probably about a phishing form,” he wrote. “We take phishing very seriously. Our Bayesian phishing filter has suspended [65,000] accounts last year. We have been training it for many years, so it can detect phishing forms with great accuracy. We also take any reports about phishing very seriously and quickly suspend the accounts and let the other party know about it.”
Phishing is a type of online scam that attempts to gather a users’ financial details through falsified documents. Tank’s assumption is likely correct, being that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been the go-to agency for domain seizures when copyright enforcement concerns are the trigger. The U.S. Secret Service investigates financial crimes and has particular expertise in phishing scams, with 16 different teams nation-wide as part of its Electronic Crimes Working Groups.
But it’s troubling to Tank, and many other digital rights advocates, that a thriving, legitimate business can be shut down simply at the request of a government agency, with no reason or chance for appeal given to the owner before enforcement.
Because of the domain seizure, all of JotForm’s paying customers suddenly lost access to the product they purchased, and the site had to scramble to design a workaround. It has since relaunched on a .net domain and contacted frequent users with information on how to get their forms working again.
The take-down is surprising because JotForm is unique among the many other sites that have seen enforcement actions. Instead of providing blind hosting for pirated media files, or helping facilitate copyright infringement by serving Torrents or illegal video streams, JotForm is more like YouTube: a service that helps users create and share a particular type of content.
And like YouTube, JotForm has pieces of content numbering in the millions — more than staff can reasonably sift through by hand.
“I believe this can happen to anybody who allows users to create content on the web,” the site’s founder concluded. “So, if you have such business, my recommendation would be to make sure that you can contact your most active users quickly if your domain is disabled. Many of our users are shocked and angry at us.”
More than just another music or video sharing site being taken offline, JotForm’s take-down could have detrimental effects on the user-generated content sub-industry, currently the most popular category of websites in the world with companies like Facebook, Reddit and Twitter leading the way.
In the lead-up to the recent Washington debate on anti-piracy legislation, the owners of user-generated websites voiced concerns that the proposed laws would essentially end their entire sub-industry and severely chill online research and innovation. Worse yet, virtually all modern websites allow for at least some level of user-submitted content, be it comments on a news story, photographs, videos and more.
The take-down of JotForm seems to confirm that their fears are being realized, even without passage of the content industry’s anti-piracy proposals.
At press time, neither GoDaddy nor the Secret Service had responded to Raw Story’s requests for comment.
Update: JotForm back online, Secret Service confirms involvement
After a slew of media coverage on Thursday, domain registrar GoDaddy restored JotForm’s .com domain without giving the owner notice. Tank told Ars Technica reporter Nate Anderson — who actually broke the news that his business had been reopened — that GoDaddy did not provide him with any information prior to the take-down, or the site’s restoration, other than saying they comply with government requests.
Although they did not return a call to Raw Story, Secret Service spokesman Brian Leary told Ars Technica that they were indeed involved in the take-down, and they’ve launched an internal review to ensure proper policy was followed. It is still not clear whether a court order was obtained or what the reasons were for the site’s sudden banishment.
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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