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The Case of "Cyber Monday's" Disappearing Domains

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, November 29 2010

The Hill's Sara Jerome reports that several dozen websites have found their domain names "seized" by order of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Agency:

Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday the government crackdown on websites facilitating copyright infringement was timed to coincide with the holiday shopping season.

The government has shut down 82 websites in the past few days as part of "Operation In Our Sites II," an effort by the Justice and Homeland Security Departments and nine attorneys general offices to debilitate fraudulent Web domains. 

"As of today — what is known as 'Cyber Monday' and billed as the busiest online shopping day of the year — anyone attempting to access one of these websites using its domain name will no longer be able to make a purchase," Holder said Monday at a press conference.

At this point, you might be saying, comeagainwhatnowsayhuh? The United States federal government can pull websites from the global Internet? Indeed, they can. It's not clear at the moment exactly what means that DHS used to get their big ol' seizure notice posted on sites like BurberryOutletshop.com and Torrent-Finder.com, but it's clear that they got their way at one of the core layers at which the World Wide Web functions, whether that's the domain name server system (as in, telling the computers that act as traffic cops on the web that they're actually now the folks behind, say, BurberryOutletshop.com) or at the domain registrar or hosting level. A bill called COICA currently in the Senate would make this regular practice, but as Jerome points out, it's clear that the federal government -- or, more pointedly, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Assocation of America -- already have at their disposal the means by which they can take down, without, it seems, prior notice, offending websites.

(At the risk of getting into the weeds, these sites still exist on the Internet -- only their domain names have been seized, not their actual spots on the web, which should highlight now odd the idea of government-disappeared domain name is.)

The big entertainment lobby has for years now been pushing for Congress and Washington to think of the counterfeiting of consumer products at the very same time as they think of the improper downloading of copyright-protected music and movies. Bundling that all as 'stolen products' is a major win for them, and then getting the federal government to take the step of seizing domains related to both types of activity is a huge victory for the entertainment lobbies. Congress, motivated by a legitiamte desire to protect American business and an interest in winning the favor of the entertainment lobbies, has taken a thunderous step that -- when you take a step back and think about it -- calls into question the fundamental nature of the global Internet, and the U.S. government's favored role when it comes to its governance and management. Will the federal government stop at torrent sites and counterfeit vendors, or is, say, anyone who causes offense at risk? Today in particular, Wikileaks.org comes to mind.