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February 17, 2011

Feds “accidentally” shut down 84,000 websites

Wow, I’m not even sure how to respond to this one.  Every business has some inherent risks, but one of the last things you’d expect is that a government agency would shut down tens of thousands of websites without any kind of due process.

While the internet has been largely unregulated, there has also been some sporadic enforcement of intellectual property and decency laws.  Without a specific law guiding this process, the actual seizures of domains and servers has been carried out by the Department of Homeland Security or Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – departments that aren’t exactly known for working with the courts in public, or waiting for very much approval before grabbing something or someone it suspects of breaking the law.

For the children!

So earlier this week, “Operation Save Our Children” unfolded and you can even see how proud the DHS is of this “successful” operation.  Except things didn’t go quite right, and when they seized a DNS registrar it ended up taking 84,000 innocent domains down with it.  Oh, but the effected domains weren’t just offline – they were broadcasting a message about how the site was guilty in trafficking illegal (and disgusting) materials.   Now, not only are the webmasters facing forced down time, they’ve been publicly slandered…

Unfortunately, none of the web owners caught up in this got any sort of warning or notification from the courts.

And for the NFL and Hollywood…

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Department of Homeland Security has gone hunting for domain names.  The last big raids have targeted television & movie streaming sites, sports video sites, and even sites dedicated to giving underground musicians a place to share their songs.  Although the intent of the site and a majority of its uses might be legal, it just takes a few people pointing to songs and videos and links they don’t have rights to for the whole thing to be blacklisted.   So although the latest and most botched domain raids were “For the children,” this trend started up originally in service of the same mega-corporations who bankroll political campaigns.

How can we defend?

There actually isn’t a whole lot we can do to protect our businesses from such a haphazard and secretive enforcement of the laws.  Obviously, keeping things legal will help, but that doesn’t entirely guarantee that your sites won’t get caught up in the sweep for others.

Diversify: If you’re as scattered brained and unfocused as I am, the obvious answer is to build multiple websites up on multiple domain names, hosts, and DNS registrars.  So if one of them gets caught up in a sloppy criminal raid, or takes a dive in the search rankings, or even if my favorite advertiser goes out of business – there are like four more backup plans.  Of course, this won’t work so well if you’re the kind of person who likes to dedicate 100% to a single project.  In that case, the best you can do is to keep a good backup of your work and have a domain name online and ready to host a new mirror.  Then lawyer up, ASAP!

Donate: to organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation who support digital freedom.  Of course, no one wants their original content to be copied and ripped off, but it might just be that the current copyright and IP regime is actually more dangerous to small producers than scummy scrapers are.  Even before the DMCA phase, there are some ways to fight back against content thefts & scrapers, and in most cases these infringements never even pop up on the radar.  It is just one of those things that happens, and no law or enforcement mechanism is going to completely eradicate it.  It will get some innocent third parties caught up in the cross fire, though, so be careful and do what you can to stay safe!

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