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'Operation in our Sites' challenged

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The Spanish operator of a website related to sports has petitioned for the return of two domain names seized by the US government in an unprecedented campaign that confiscates the addresses without first giving owners a chance to defend themselves in court.

Puerto 80, the owner of rojadirecta.com and rojadirecta.org, said in a court filing that the seizures by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials constituted a prior restraint on the Free Speech rights of users, some of whom are US citizens or aliens residing in the US. Prior to the January 31 action, the site received “well over” 1 million visitors a day and was listed among the 100 most popular sites in Spain in terms of traffic.

“Puerto 80 is incurring substantial hardship due to the government's seizure of the subject domain names and its failure to take action on Puerto 80's request for return of the subject domain names,” the petition, filed Monday in US District Court for the Southern District of New York, stated. “In particular, the seizure blocks all traffic to the site via the subject domain names, damaging Puerto 80's goodwill and risking the permanent loss of its users.”

Officials with ICE, which is an enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, confiscated the domains under an initiative designed to disrupt websites accused of selling or distributing counterfeit goods and copyrighted works. Dubbed Operation in our Sites, it allows officials to file secret applications in court for the seizures that become public only after a judge has approved the request.

So far, at least 92 domain names have been seized under the program.

ICE officials have claimed the Rojadirecta website violated US sports teams' copyrights and trademarks by offering links to sites that offered unauthorized live streaming of games. Puerto 80 doesn't host any of the videos or other content, and the US government has never alleged otherwise. The site has twice been declared by Spanish courts to be operating legally.

Under the campaign, the government seizes domain names issued by or under the control of US-based registrars or webhosts. That causes people who type the names into browsers to be directed to a page that says it has been seized by “ICE – Homeland Security Investigations.” The seizures have no effect on the servers or underlying IP addresses used to run the sites, so the sites remain available to those who use a Firefox addon or other technologies to work around the action.

Attorneys for Puerto 80 said their initial requests that the government return the domains were ignored until they threatened to file a petition in court. Then, they agreed to reverse the action only if Rojadirecta operators agreed to block users anywhere in the world from linking to any US content.

The Rojadirecta attorneys said they wouldn't agree to those terms.

Monday's petition represents the first formal challenge to Operation in our Sites. ®

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