U.S. executes another round of Web site takedowns

As Cyber Monday draws near and debate continues about the Stop Online Piracy Act, the U.S. government again seizes a bevy of domain names it says belong to Web sites that deal in counterfeit goods.

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Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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As Cyber Monday draws near and debate continues about the Stop Online Piracy Act, the U.S. government has again seized a bevy of domain names it says belong to Web sites that deal in counterfeit goods.

Blog TorrentFreak ran a list of more than 130 domains it said were seized by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security's Immigrations and Customs Enforcement division as part of "Operation in Our Sites." TorrentFreak called the move the largest such round of seizures to date.

The notice that appears when Web users access a seized domain.

Most of the domain names suggest sites that traffic in counterfeit clothing items: cheap-louisvuitton-replica.com, nfljerseyswhole.com, uggbootsclearanceoutletstores.com, and so on. The list is also sprinkled with names that suggest digital piracy: dvdsetonline.com, for example.

TorrentFreak reported that the seizures were limited to sites that directly charge visitors for their services.

A year ago, the Justice Department and Immigrations and Customs knocked out dozens of Web sites as Cyber Monday approached, and the agencies have shut down still more sites in the interim.

The seized domains are presumably registered in the United States. To justify the takedowns of domestically registered domains from a legal standpoint, the U.S. government has been using 2008's PRO IP Act to invoke "civil forfeiture" laws. Such laws let the government grab "property" used in the commission of certain crimes--without ever having to get a conviction for the crime itself.

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At least one Web site proprietor has challenged this type of PRO IP seizure in court, with a U.S. District Court judge ruling in favor of the government in that case. But some say the overall legality of the seizures remains fuzzy, with at least one high-profile critic of the District Court ruling claiming that it runs counter to prior, Supreme Court decisions on free speech.

All this sets the seizures apart from actions that might be taken under SOPA--the Stop Online Piracy Act--were it to pass.

SOPA, which has touched off a firestorm of criticism and is still before a Congressional committee, is like the similar but less broad Protect IP Act, which is awaiting a floor vote in the Senate. Both proposals take aim at "foreign rogue" Web sites, those with domains registered outside the U.S.

Still, the domestic, PRO IP seizures have generated some of the same sorts of concerns that have sprung up around SOPA and Protect IP. Critics worry that, among other things, the government is being given the power to quash dissension on Web sites merely by claiming that certain sites foster copyright infringement.

Meanwhile, supporters of the seizures and of related legislation claim that, among other things, "rogue sites," whether domestic or foreign, undermine the U.S. economy by hijacking profits that would otherwise go to the U.S. originators of products and content.