The 84,000 question

I hadn’t had a chance yet to comment on the 84,000 websites the U.S. government seized about a month ago because they were supposedly associated with child pornography.  Turns out the government was wrong about that, but the damage was done since a lot of visitors to the websites of innocent small business owners were directed to a page displaying an imposing government seal and the statement:

Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution.

Whoops.

Recently, the White House’s IP Czar Victoria Espinel testified before the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) had a lot of pointed questions (YouTube video of the exchange here).  Now Ars Technica has posted an interview Rep. Lofgren in which talks about the due process problems with seizing domain names without giving people a chance to defend themselves before the seizure takes place:

You’ve got the prosecutors coming in, they have a judge sign something, and the people whose property is being seized are never heard from. It doesn’t appear, honestly—though it would not solve the due process problems—that there’s much inquiry on the part of the prosecution, either. Is there a fair use right? Is there an authorized use? Is there legitimate business going on? There’s no opportunity for that to be raised, and once the damage is done, it’s done.I’ve not yet talked to some of the individuals, but we’ve had second-hand reports of people in the child pornography takedown [i.e., who owned one of those 84,000 websites] whose businesses were essentially destroyed. There’s hardly anything you can say. It’s worse than accusing somebody of being a pedophile.

These are troubling developments indeed.  The whole point of giving the innocent-until-proven-guilty the chance to defend themselves before seizure is to help prevent these sorts of devastating mistakes from happening.

Seizing the spotlight

One of the items highlighted in Monday’s Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator (IPEC) report (92 page PDF–see here for my previous post) was government seizures of various domain names allegedly associated with infringing comment.  Bruce Lidi over at ZeroPaid makes a compelling argument that the publicity associated with such tactics is counter-productive at best:

As nearly every analysis of the recent ICE action has noted, by seizing the US registered domain names of foreign-owned and operated sites, the authorities have propelled the sites to set up on domains not under US control, and to do so within days, if not hours, of the seizures….It would appear that aside from a very momentary interruption, the practical effect of the seizures will be negligible, except to make any future actions by rights holders that much more difficult, since the targeted sites will be farther from US jurisdiction.

Additionally, and even more importantly, the recent ICE domain seizures that focused on sports streaming sites has had, and will continue to have, the effect of generating more publicity for this kind of infringing.  Consistent with the concept of the “Streisand Effect,” attempts to suppress troublesome information online result invariably in that information becoming even more widely distributed.  While impossible to quantify with any certainty, the seizures by ICE surely increased awareness of the existence of rojadirecta and atdhe, and even more, of the ease in which viewers can access live streaming of sporting events online.  As we so often see in articles about “cord-cutting,” or dropping cable in favor of purely internet video delivery, many people are stymied by the lack of live sports online, yet now, because of the actions of ICE, millions more viewers have just been instructed that it is actually quite simple to get live footage of every soccer match or football game.

Lidi’s analysis reminded me of countless debates I’ve read about U.S. military policy.  Some people favor a “shock and awe” approach while others think that “winning over hearts and minds” is the way to go.  Unfortunately for the content industry, I’m not sure that they’re ever going to win people over completely to their way of thinking.  Anyone who claims that, as a practical matter, people don’t have the right to rip their owned CD into Mp3’s (article from 2008 but still true–see the RIAA’s current website) has completely lost touch with reality.