ICE’s Morton aims to pull plug on piracy

Downloading content illegally online is no different from shoplifting or buying bootleg movies on the street, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton.

That’s music to the ears of firms that are struggling to protect their property from rampant online copyright violations.

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The recording, film, software and video game industries have made fighting digital piracy and counterfeiting their top policy issue. Ditto for retailers and brand-name companies victimized by the knockoffs that proliferate on eBay and other websites. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has an entire office devoted to the problem — as do the Department of Justice, the Secret Service and the State Department.

And then there’s ICE, which has made perhaps the largest impact by seizing a number of domains accused of flouting copyright laws. 

The agency’s maiden domain seizures over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend last year made waves in the tech community and served notice that the government is taking a more aggressive approach to piracy.

“[Online copyright enforcement] is a very high priority for us. It’s a very high priority for the administration generally,” Morton told The Hill recently.

“American industry is literally under assault from counterfeiters. That’s not anything new, but the sheer size and sophistication of it have grown to levels that are really disconcerting for industries across the American economic perspective.”

While Morton is quick to note the leadership of Vice President Biden and the involvement of Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, he has become the face of the administration’s hawkish campaign against online copyright violations.

“I’m not trying to increase the number of cases by 20 percent and call that success,” Morton said. “I’m trying to change the face of IP enforcement. I’m trying to make a difference.”

A career law enforcement official and prosecutor, Morton was plucked from the Justice Department in 2009 and nominated by President Obama to lead a nascent agency (founded in 2003) more frequently associated with managing the many immigrant detainees across the U.S.

“It was my judgment when I first came into office that we needed to do much more. And I’d heard all of the criticisms, that it’s whack-a-mole, that there’s nothing you can do about it, and I just disagreed with that fairly negative assessment,” Morton said. “I thought there was a lot more we could do. I frankly don’t think we have a choice.”

Morton says the government must act to stop counterfeiting and piracy because they undermine innovation and threaten domestic job creation. He warned that drug companies and other firms would be reluctant to invest billions in research and development if their products are stolen before they turn a profit.

“We want people to shoot for the stars. We want people to be innovative. We want people to make America a great place for the latest cutting-edge idea or advance, and the only way you do that is have a system that protects people’s intellectual property investments,” Morton said, noting that such protections are a constitutional right.

But Morton and the entertainment industry must also contend with the still-prevailing impression that downloading or streaming copyrighted content online isn’t a crime. Despite the fact the sites linking to pirated content are, in Morton’s words, “criminal organizations,” the public still largely perceives the issue as a victimless crime.

Morton rejected that characterization, pointing to the severe decline in the recording industry over the past 10 years. He argued the piracy of music online has had a “very tangible effect on real people” working for recording studios, advertisers and the rest of the industry.

“The whole industry, one of America’s great industries, has seen a significant decline directly as a result of criminal behavior,” Morton said. Worse still, in his view, is that copyright violators are increasingly trying to mirror legitimate online retailers, increasing the amount they collect in fraud and lessening trust in the digital economy.

That’s where Operation In Our Sites comes in. Morton said the idea was to come up with an effective law enforcement strategy for sites based outside of the U.S. that are defrauding domestic intellectual property rights holders. The answer came in the form of domain names, which he said provide a tangible link to some of the worst offenders. The resulting seizures of over 140 domain names have made a significant dent in the online piracy market as other sites have gone offline or underground to avoid similar prosecution.

“We’ve taken care to focus on worst of the worst,” Morton said, adding that industry has been helpful in part because it’s the first time they’ve had a single government agency to whom they can report serial violators. 

“John is an imaginative leader who thinks outside the box about new ways to address a complex enforcement problem,” said Recording Industry Association of America CEO Cary Sherman. “He’s not afraid to rock the boat to get results. I’m a big fan.”

“John is one of the best. He really gets it — he’s about change,” said Mike Robinson, the executive vide president of worldwide content protection for the Motion Picture Association of America. “He thinks outside the box and he’s very sincere.”

As for Operation In Our Sites, Robinson said, “It’s not an end-all, be-all, but it’s a step in the right direction.” He agreed that since Morton has taken over, it has become much easier to coordinate with government to combat piracy.

The son of an American father and a British mother, Morton grew up in Alexandria, Va., where he attended Episcopal High School before moving on to the Peace Corps. After graduating from the University of Virginia Law School, he joined the Justice Department, where he said he “never looked back” until the White House called with a job offer.

“It’s a good time for intellectual property rights enforcement,” Morton said. “There’s a lot going on; there has been and there will be in the coming years.”

With several bills in play on Capitol Hill that would significantly expand the government’s authority to go after violators, his prediction is likely to be true on a number of fronts going forward. While some privacy advocates may question the government’s methods, there’s no disputing that under Morton, ICE has managed to turn heads in the online world.

“Anyone who thinks this is about small-time crime on the corner of Fourth and Main is sadly mistaken,” Morton said, noting ICE and DOJ have never been more active on the issue than at present. 

“Intellectual property violations have become big-time international crime. We’ve got to focus and do something about it.”


This post has been updated.