Eighty-two websites were shut down near Thanksgiving for alleged counterfeit and copyright violations.
Flickr image: Mr. Java

Federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security relied on information from entertainment industry trade organizations when they shut down a file-sharing search site and several popular music blogs around Thanksgiving, according to newly available court documents. Lobby groups representing the mainstream film and music industries aided government officials in determining whether files available on the sites were guarded by copyright protections, according to the affidavit.

Internet-freedom advocates have expressed growing concern about the government’s reach on the web and warn that a rush to remove sites without careful consideration could harm First Amendment-protected speech online.

Torrent-Finder.com’s shut down is the first time a search engine, which does not actually host any pirated files, has been targeted, said David Snead, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who represents the site’s owner, Waleed Gadelkareem. His site is also used to find legitimate material, such as open-source software and textbooks available in the public domain. It is not primarily intended for downloading copyrighted material, Snead said.

“If my client’s site is facilitating infringement, then so is Google,” he said. “If you just take the search terms that the investigator typed into my client’s search engine and type them into Google, you’ll get some of the exact same results. So this is really trying to classify one type of speech as inherently infringing.”

The site owners are challenging other details contained in the affidavit. The owner of Dajaz1.com, a music blog, told the New York Times that many of the clips cited by investigators as evidence of copyright infringement were actually promotional files given to him by music-industry marketers.

How agents seized the sites is also unusual, Snead said. The owners were given no warning before being shut down, and the warrant affidavit was not given to Snead’s client for almost two weeks. Typically, when a site is forced off the web, companies that manage the site’s name immediately pass on legal documents justifying the action, unless they were marked confidential, according to Snead.

In this case, GoDaddy, which registered Torrent-Finder’s web address, told Gadelkareem to contact the Department of Homeland Security for more details, even though the affidavit was not confidential. Lawyer Snead said that VeriSign, which manages .com urls, still hasn’t responded to requests for more information.

“The government has been very secretive about what they’re doing,” he said.

Civil libertarians argue that these types of seizures could become commonplace if Washington lawmakers pass the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, proposed in September by Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont. That bill, which is currently stalled in Congress, would give the Justice Department broader powers to take down sites if the owners are suspected of trading in copyright-protected material.

-Tia Ghose

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.