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On domain seizures over links, DHS faces digital conundrum

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What makes Google searches any different from websites dedicated to searching out and linking to copyrighted content on other servers?

That’s a question Homeland Security Investigation Special Agent James Hayes had a hard time explaining during a recent phone interview with John Moe of American Public Media.

Last week, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) announced the domain names of ten “linking” websites had been seized for 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.

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In a phone interview, confronted by Moe, Special Agent Hayes didn’t seem too sure if ICE could seize Google’s domain as well.

He responded that Homeland Security would not be targeting Google because the agency was only targeting sites that “failed to do any due diligence to insure that the content they are providing has been authorized by the copyright holders or that the websites that they are linking to have received authorization from copyright holders.”

“There’s a pretty serious problem with this claim in that it’s wrong on both sides of the equation,” Mike Masnick of TechDirt commented. “Google, as a search engine, does no due diligence to check that links only go to non-infringing content.”

The domain names seized by ICE were ATDHE.NET, CHANNELSURFING.NET, HQ-STREAMS.COM, HQSTREAMS.NET, FIRSTROW.NET, ILEMI.COM, IILEMI.COM, IILEMII.COM, ROJADIRECTA.ORG and ROJADIRECTA.COM.

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

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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.

“The revenue that these sport franchises make as a result of these sporting events does a number of things,” Special Agent Hayes continued. “One, there is taxes paid on that. And two, they are also able to hire employees through that revenue.

“For instance, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which charges $44.95 for an event, and you have a million people watching that event that are not paying for that, because the content has been pirated, that’s lost tax revenue and that’s lost jobs. Especially in down economy, that is a big concern.”

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The domain names were seized as part of “Operation in Our Sites,” an ongoing investigation into websites that illegally offer copyrighted material.

In November 2010, the Department of Homeland Security closed down at least 76 domains. Many of the web domains were sites that trafficked in counterfeit brand name goods and some others linked to copyright-infringing file-sharing materials. At least one of the sites was a Google-like search engine: a revelation that caused alarm among web freedom advocates who worried the government’s move stepped over the line.

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