November 30, 2010 6:57 pm

US seizes domain names of 82 websites

US authorities invoked tough asset-forfeiture laws to seize the domain names of 82 websites accused of aiding the sale of counterfeit goods or assisting with digital piracy, the most sweeping use of the statutes thus far against illicit online activity.

All but five of the confiscated website addresses offered tangible products for sale, mostly made in or shipped from China, officials said Monday. The others were connected with the distribution of copyrighted movies, music or software.

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Among the sites shuttered in recent days were louis-vuitton-outlet-store.com, burberryoutletshop.com and realtimberland.com, none of which were affiliated with the real brands cited.

In all of the cases, the Justice Department and the customs division of the Department of Homeland Security relied on forfeiture laws that allow for property seizures when the judge finds that property – in this case the domain names – were probably used to facilitate copyright or trademark infringements.

Forfeiture cases are technically not filed against any individual or business but against the property itself, and the laws have been faulted by civil liberties advocates alarmed by the lack of due process. After a seizure, the burden of proof shifts to the owner of property to show that it was not used for an illegal purpose.

At least one of the sites accused of assisting with digital piracy, Torrent-Finder.com, complained that it acted merely as a search engine for people seeking material hosted with the BitTorrent protocol, which distributes both pirated and non-copyrighted works.

But in an interview, a customs official said the site would have to do more than that to be pursued under the forfeiture law.

Erik Barnett, assistant deputy director of immigration and customs enforcement, said that the Torrent-Finder case was under investigation and that he could not go into details about it.

In general, Mr Barnett told the Financial Times,”there’s no interest in a site in existence as a search-engine type mechanism, that’s not violative of the law. But where an individual gets more heavily involved in engaging in specific techniques designed to direct users to copyrighted material, that’s where there is going to be Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security interest and ultimately a federal judge who recognises that a line has been crossed.”

Most commonly, US forfeiture laws are invoked to seize drug houses. They also come into play in money laundering and smuggling.

But a number of other crimes can trigger forfeiture under the statutes as well, including computer hacking. That raises the possibility that domain names could be seized from online gangsters, especially those who register sites that are common misspellings of banks and other financial institutions.

The approach has its limitations as well. Domain names can be easily purchased and the same business can move locations and rebuild traffic.

VeriSign, which oversees all of .com domains, including those seized in recent days, cooperated with the court orders. Other domain-name endings are controlled by companies based overseas and would not have to comply.

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