No Safe Harbor: The Worst Part of Censorship

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by Ryan Moffitt

Anyone who has been within 100 yards of a television, radio or computer in the last 30 years or so has heard of .com, .net, .org, et cetera. These are top level domains (TLDs) and serve as the first step in pointing your web browser in the direction you want it to go. TLDs are hosted on root domain servers around the world, and serve as the backbone for the internet as we know it today. In a perfect world, these servers would hum along, receiving periodic maintenance and let us surf on our merry little way. But by this point, you’ve probably learned that we don’t live in a perfect world. These TLDs have come under attack, and it’s not from your usual e-terrorist wielding a zombie botnet army. The U.S Department of Homeland Security has been on the attack, wielding the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), a $5 billion annual budget and hundreds of special agents trained in intimidation tactics and the latest in technological expertise. The ICE Cyber Crimes Unit has undertaken operations to forcibly remove websites from the .com, .net and .org TLDs for supposed intellectual property violations. Dubbed “Operation Within Our Sites,” ICE never informed the rightful owners of the sites they were being investigated, and the operators of the sites did not find out about the seizure until they discovered it themselves. When they contacted their webspace provider, they were simply given the name and number of an ICE Special Agent, who refused to comment on ongoing investigations. As of the publishing date of this book, Within Our Sites has seized at least 90 known websites and has severely interrupted service for 82,000 others in various technical foul-ups and miscommunications. Now this all sounds fairly terrible, doesn’t it? Big Brother stepping over free speech and all that again, right? Well, here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. Remember those root name servers? Those servers aren’t always operated by altruistic organizations who have your best interest in mind. I’ll use .com and .net as an example, as the overwhelming majority of websites you navigate to will be in the .com and .net TLD. The root name servers for these two domains are owned and operated by a private corporation called Verisign. As the operator of the largest root name servers in the world, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and ICE have put the figurative screws to Verisign. When asked about this development, the US government argues that because Verisign is an American company, it has the unrestricted and unilateral power to shut down entire portions of the .com and .net domains, whether or not the sites are hosted on American servers or owned by American citizens. Through ICE pressure, censorship-friendly judges issued sealed court orders to Verisign, who promptly took down the supposedly infringing sites without so much as a question asked. It gets worse still. Verisign, fearing further pressure from not only ICE, but from local and federal law enforcement agencies, and seeking to dodge criticism for taking down domains that had been ruled legal in other localities, filed an astonishing and unprecedented request with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization in charge of assigning IP addresses and managing all of the TLDs in October 2011. This request was for ICANN to allow Verisign to shut off websites in the .com and .net TLDs when simply asked by a law enforcement agency, without requiring so much as a court order, search and seizure warrant or even a phone call from a judge. This power would apply to any website, hosted and/or owned by anyone, anywhere in the world and without any form of due process. The proposed rules, to the surprise of nobody, were crafted with the assistance of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation and proposed by what has now become the puppet organization Verisign. The justification presented to us by these organizations for warrantless property seizure, in clear violation of the 4th Amendment has been to “control intellectual property infringement in the digital age.” That’s right, folks. Your constitutional rights are inconvenient to Hollywood. A free society is not conducive to shoving chunks of human culture in a box and setting armed guards in front of it. Hollywood’s heavy-weights believe so heavily in censoring the internet, they held a little meeting in May, 2007. The US Chamber of Commerce (a corporate lobbying organization not to be confused with the US Department of Commerce) held a seminar in Stockholm entitled “Sweden – A Safe Haven for Pirates?” The speaker, Johan Schluter of the IP lobbyist group, Danish Anti-Piracy Group gave a speech. In this speech, Mr. Schluter espoused how much he loves child pornography. Why does he love child pornography so much?

“Child pornography is great! …It is great because politicians understand child pornography. By playing that card, we can get them to act, and start blocking sites. And once they have done that, we can get them to start blocking file-sharing sites.”
-Johan Schluter, Danish Anti-Piracy Group

Using this logic, intellectual property advocates have successfully played law enforcement agencies and politicians into their hands and have begun their blatant and unashamed attack on basic civil liberties. What the IP lobbies never counted on was the counterpoint to call them on their nonsense. The Pirate movement is that counterpoint. We believe in building a future we can be proud of, rather than a future that is profitable for a few. The fundamental need for people to share has been a tenant of society since we first started drawing on cave walls. The IP lobby successfully shut down mainstream commercial sharing with Napster and Kazaa, but also succeeded in helping the proliferation of more underground methods of sharing like the Bit-torrent protocol. People will always find ways to share and communicate, whether it moves to unregulated darknets that pop in and out of existence in hours or we resort back to sneakernet dead-drops. Seizing property without a warrant and trying to extend a single government’s jurisdiction around the world only succeeds in infringing on basic civil liberties. An industry that has to suspend civil liberties to make money is an industry the world needs to be without.