Government's Internet crackdown was timed to thwart 'Cyber Monday' crimes

Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday the government crackdown on websites facilitating copyright infringement was timed to coincide with the holiday shopping season.

The government has shut down 82 websites in the past few days as part of "Operation In Our Sites II," an effort by the Justice and Homeland Security Departments and nine attorneys general offices to debilitate fraudulent Web domains. 

"As of today — what is known as 'Cyber Monday' and billed as the busiest online shopping day of the year — anyone attempting to access one of these websites using its domain name will no longer be able to make a purchase," Holder said Monday at a press conference.

Holder said seizure orders for the domain names were obtained from U.S. magistrate judges.

The crackdown targeted websites that sell counterfeit goods, "including sports equipment, shoes, handbags, athletic apparel, sunglasses, and illegal copies of DVDs, music and software," Holder said.

Some website owners were surprised to find their sites shut down during the weekend and replaced by an emblem indicating it had been seized by federal authorities.

Holder said the effort follows a similar crackdown over the summer focusing on first-run movie infringement. He said efforts to protect intellectual property also benefit employment and innovation.

"[Intellectual property] crimes threaten economic opportunities and financial stability," he said. "They destroy jobs."

John Morton, director of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), characterized the effort as a "top priority" of DHS.

“We are dedicated to protecting the jobs, the income and the tax revenue that disappear when counterfeit goods are trafficked," he said.

It comes "as the holiday shopping season gets under way" in part to "remind consumers" they should be cautious about online deals, Holder said.

"To put it simply: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is," he said.

The government appears to be pursuing a valid process, according to Larry Downes, an expert on online issues and a fellow at the Stanford Law School Center for Internet & Society.

But that does not mean such crackdowns can't be problematic.

"In practice, as this investigation suggests, the forfeiture statute can be used as a bludgeon by prosecutors to effectively punish the defendants and shut them down without a trial, making the trial largely unnecessary," he said.

"The shutdowns are supposed to be temporary, and no determination of guilt has been made," he said. "The orders can be challenged, but it’s a hard and expensive process."

The crackdown coincides with the Senate effort to push forward with the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA). Critics of the legislation say it is too heavy handed and might lead to Web censorship by the government.

The Justice and Homeland Security Department crackdown may give COICA-opponents new leeway to argue that the government already has enough power to shutdown problematic websites, so Congress need not afford it more.

"Claims by COICA proponents that they need sweeping new powers to seize domain names are difficult to square with the reality that the government appears to have exercised this same authority," said Patrick Ruffini, an organizer for the coalition opposing COICA and a NextRight blogger.

He also said that the sites in question have "very publicly relocated to new domain names within hours."

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has been the most vocal COICA opponent on Capitol Hill. He has vowed to put a formal hold on the bill.

The recording and movie industries, which have struggled to combat Internet-enabled IP theft for years, praised the government effort on Monday. 

"These ‘worst of the worst’ rogue websites, which cloak themselves in respectability yet traffic in counterfeit and stolen goods, victimize not only the buyers of these products, but the more than 2.4 million hardworking Americans whose livelihoods depend on a healthy motion picture and television industry," said Bob Pisano, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

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