Weapons in the Piracy Wars: COICA and Domain Name Seizures

March 17, 2011

By Jake Goldenfein

You may have encountered this image if you recently tried to stream a sporting event online. Domain name seizures in the US occur under civil forfeiture and seizure provisions in the Crimes and Criminal Procedure title of the United States Code. Being territorially restricted, those provisions allow the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) to distrain websites with a .com, .net or .org suffix.

Recent seizures of websites linking streamed sporting events (conveniently 10 days before the Super Bowl) were the directive of phase 3 of ICE’s Operation ‘In Our Sites,’ which began in June 2010. The mandate of ‘In Our Sites’ goes beyond sporting events however, and has targeted websites connected to counterfeit goods, child pornography and first-run movies. Although the process and propriety of those seizures have been questioned, presently working its way through the US political system is the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) that will provide an expedited process to block domains and extend ICE’s reach to content hosted outside the US.

COICA (S. 3804) would authorise the Attorney General to obtain injunctions in rem against websites ‘dedicated to infringing activities.’ Sites are defined as dedicated to infringing activities if ‘primarily designed’, have ‘no demonstrable commercially significant purpose or use other than,’ or are ‘marketed by its operator,’ as offering copyright infringing goods.

Effectively, COICA creates an internet blacklist with ‘offending’ websites added by Court order. Originally there was a second blacklist controlled by the Attorney General without judicial oversight, however that was jettisoned in the bill’s latest iteration. By obtaining a Federal Court injunction, the Attorney General orders U.S. domain name registrars to stop resolving blacklisted domains, leading users instead to an error message.

For infringing domains outside of the U.S, the bill demands internet service providers block offending foreign addresses. This does not prevent access outside of U.S territory, but rather is aimed at preventing the importation into the US (censoring) of goods and services offered by websites deemed ‘dedicated’ to infringing activities.

Introduced by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy in September, the bill received unanimous approval by the Senate Judiciary Committee in November 2010 under Leahy’s chair. Not surprisingly three of Leahy’s top five campaign contributors are large media organisations. Yet substantial opposition from various groups including Internet Engineers, Human Rights Groups, the Net Coalition, some Senators, and law professors has been successful in preventing the bill passing a full vote on the Senate floor, leading to another Judiciary Committee hearing on 16 February, which led to discussion of substantial modification, and likely a follow-up hearing.

Arguments against the bill include:

  • Blacklisting of websites by Justice Department officials without sufficient judicial oversight offends due process and threatens legitimate political speech.
  • Definitions within the bill, including ‘facilitating infringement’ and ‘dedicated to infringing activities’ are very broad.
  • Blacklisting for copyright infringement purposes may undermine U.S. secondary liability law as well as existing copyright exceptions, limitations and defences.
  • The censorship process causes entire domains to vanish, not just infringing pages or files.
  • The bill creates precedent for internet censorship, and congress should consider the effect for countries less protective of citizens’ rights of free expression.
  • The extraterritorial reach of the court prevents a full and fair trial with all interested parties present.
  • The bill may affect legitimate digital services such as cyberlockers if the Department of Justice decides that piracy is ‘central’ to their businesses.
  • Blacklisting may apply to sites that discuss and advocate for P2P technology or piracy because they sometimes link tools and information intended for file sharing, despite the otherwise political nature of their speech.
  • Censorship may undermine the stability of the internet by encouraging the use of circumvention measures and rerouting internet traffic away from the U.S.

But perhaps the most compelling arguments are found in the joint letter from 49 legal academics in the U.S. Citing jurisprudence, they contend ‘the bill amounts to a constitutional abridgment of freedom of speech because it directs courts to impose “prior restraints” on speech, which are the most serious and least tolerable infringement of First Amendment rights.’ They argue such cases ‘require a court, before the material is completely removed from circulation to make a final determination that material is unlawful after an adversary hearing.’

Contrary to that requirement, the professors claim ‘the Act permits the issuance of speech-suppressing injunctions without any meaningful opportunity for any party to contest the Attorney General’s allegations of unlawful content’ because of inadequate notice provisions and the capacity to enter injunctions ex parte. Requiring the shut down of entire domains rather than blocking specific content is described in the letter as ‘burning down the house to roast the pig.’

More profound however, is the academics’ claim that the bill’s ‘egregious Constitutional infirmities… will not survive judicial scrutiny’ suggesting its significance ‘is entirely symbolic.’ This would be the first time the US would require internet service providers to block speech because of its content. Enjoining ISPs to police users’ activities is an issue of growing judicial significance, not simply in circumstances like the iiNet case in Australia, but also for a range of future measures, including filtering, censorship and levying, that may require ISP cooperation.

Content industries have sought this law for years, and view the new capabilities as a magic bullet for copyright enforcement, with the MPAA and RIAA extensively lobbying for its passage. Lauding the legislation, the bill’s proponents emphasize the derisory economic consequences affected by infringing rogue sites. Previous MPAA interim boss Bob Pisano defended the bill, claiming targeted sites ‘exist for one purpose only – to make a profit using the internet to distribute the stolen and counterfeited goods and ideas of others,’ and that the ‘economic impact of these activities – millions of lost jobs and dollars – is profound.’ Pisano argues the First Amendment was not intended as a shield for those who steal, irrespective of the means. ‘Theft is theft, whether it occurs in a dark alley or in the ether, and to attempt to distinguish the two is to undermine the most basic tenets of our criminal laws.’

Clearly rhetoric laden, such speech reverts back to the questionable conflation of tangible and intellectual goods, and co-opts morality for its justification without acknowledging the concomitant censorship issues. However, other Hollywood groups have claimed that concerns of unlawful censorship are an ‘absurd misrepresentation of civic rights’.

For organisations like MPAA and RIAA who maintain a controversial program of prosecuting online copyright infringement, the new law would amount to another weapon in the arsenal of content protection. But beyond copyright, the bill highlights emerging issues in digital censorship and jurisdiction by entrenching in U.S law filtering of international content that offends local laws – a dangerous precedent that may expand to other types of speech. Passage of this bill would mark a substantial shift in lawmakers’ willingness to regulate cyberspace and a fortiori against the principle of the Single Global Internet.

Jake Goldenfein is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Law School

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