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A vocal chorus of lawmakers and policy wonks are decrying the US government's practice of seizing large numbers of internet domain names without first giving the owners a chance to defend themselves in court.

The latest installment of Operation in our Sites came last week with the seizure of 10 addresses for websites accused of illegally streaming live pay-per-view sporting events. Under the initiative, feds confiscate the internet addresses with no prior warning to the owners, many of whom are located outside US borders.

US Senator Ron Wyden has told Attorney General Eric Holder and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton that the “seizures represent a major shift in the way the US government combats copyright infringement in the digital environment” and warned similar actions could be taken by groups intent on squashing free speech on the net.

“I worry that domain name seizures could function as a means for end-running the normal legal process in order to target websites that may prevail in full court,” Wyden wrote in a letter dated February 2. “The new enforcement approach used by Operation in Our Sites is alarmingly unprecedented in the breadth of its potential reach.”

Wyden peppered the feds with pointed questions, including an accounting of how many of the seizures over the past nine months were accompanied by prosecutions and whether officials take into consideration the laws of the country where the domain name owner is located.

Under the process so far, feds seek an ex parte court order that gives them ownership of the addresses. Owners get no opportunity to argue on behalf of their website until after the domain name is seized. At least 92 domains have been seized under the operation so far.

Civil libertarians have characterized the move as a power grab that could seriously threaten the stability of the internet. If domain names can be shut down because of mere allegations that they violate a single country's laws, there's nothing to stop even more restrictive actions.

“Has ICE considered whether this kind of action effectively gives the green light to aggressive attempts by countries everywhere to try to impose domestic laws on foreign websites?” David Sohn, of the Center for Democracy and Technology blogged. “If that kind of practice became widespread, the impact on the internet and internet-based speech could be dramatic.”

Several pundits have said that one of the affected sites, rojadirecta.org and rojadirecta.com was recently ruled to be operating legally in Spain, where it is headquartered. Operators last week quickly got back online by swapping out the domain names with one that the feds had no jurisdiction over. Operation in Our Sites does nothing to disrupt the underlying servers running the website.

The seizures could also put US-based webhosts and domain registrars at a disadvantage, because feds don't have authority to seize addresses issued by overseas companies. Some torrent information sites are already suggesting that website operators do just that.

For more criticism see this post on The Freedom to Tinker blog. ®

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