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Open Internet

Should Crackdown on Illegal Web Content Involve Government Seizure of Domain Names?

Copyright infringement is a serious issue – a global problem that plagues creative efforts of all kinds, killing jobs and siphoning profits from legitimate companies.  There should be no sympathy for websites whose primary purpose is enabling wanton copyright violation and the theft of other intellectual property.  

A new bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) tries to address the problem of intellectual property theft by going after the domain names used by such websites.  We are concerned that the proposal veers off course in several critical areas.

In particular, we fear that the bill would have significant implications for global Internet freedom, setting a precedent for governments around the world.

The bill would establish a procedure whereby the U.S. government could seize a domain name, even if the domain name registrar and registry were located in a foreign country.  If other countries were to follow our lead in this regard, U.S. websites could find their domain names seized and blocked in foreign countries based on alleged violations of domestic law.  

The bill would require the Attorney General to create a list a kind of blacklist of suspect websites, without any court determination, and would incentivize service providers to block those websites.  In addition to posing due process and First Amendment concerns domestically, this would set a troubling precedent internationally, especially when both human rights activists and the U.S. government are criticizing the Internet control practices of governments such as China.

CDT is not sure there is any approach to illegal content that could involve the government in domain name seizures without setting a bad precedent, but we are committed to working with Chairman Leahy and others to fully explore the implications of this proposal and to seek better alternatives.