-Tia Ghose

Federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security took control of 82 web domains in recent days as part of an assault on allegedly illegal Internet activity. Some civil liberties advocates say the action is a preview of possible future overreaching by the government online.

Most of the sites hocked counterfeit goods, such as knockoff Rolex watches or Disney movies with Minnie Mouse’s name spelled wrong. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials also targeted file-sharing network domains, as well as some popular hip-hop blogs they say traded in pirated content.

Specifically the seizure of music blogs and file-sharing networks alarms Internet-freedom advocates, and it raises new questions about the protection of due-process rights, the future of online censorship by the government and ICE’s expanding role in copyright law enforcement.

It may not be obvious how downloading a bootleg of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” endangers national security, but authorities insist it does. “Counterfeit and pirated goods present a triple threat to America. They rob Americans of jobs and their innovative ideas; fuel organized crime; and create a serious public-safety risk to consumers,” Gillian Brigham, a spokesperson for ICE, wrote in an email.

Critics counter that the takeover of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks is itself a threat to constitutionally protected free speech. Such sites may enable illegal music and video downloading, but they also “make it possible for activists to be able to speak with people in other countries and share information that governments would like to have erased,” said Kembrew McCleod, a communications studies professor at the University of Iowa who has written about free-expression issues online.

For example, sites notorious for music pirating, such as Pirate Bay, helped Iranian pro-democracy protesters transmit their message to the world. And seizures can harm legitimate owners, while the shadiest sites simply change their tactics, McLeod said.

Within hours, several of the seized sites that allegedly offered counterfeit goods had new sites up with only slightly altered names or .info addresses, which put them beyond the reach of the U.S. government. Meanwhile, those who want their domains back could face a long, expensive process in court.

Two of the sites, rapgodfathers.com and onsmash.com are popular hip-hop blogs that regularly receive songs from music companies directly. People behind the sites also said they do not knowingly host pirated music and have always complied with government orders to remove copyrighted material from their sites when it appeared legally necessary to do so.

Some are also asking about the legal justification for seizing Internet domains before a single indictment has been handed up.

As part of the sting, agents made undercover purchases from counterfeit sites, many of which shipped goods overseas. Once officials confirmed the materials were fake, they got court orders from U.S. magistrate judges to grab the domains, Brigham said. Though ICE wouldn’t disclose why they targeted this particular batch of sites, Brigham said they often aim for the “worst offenders.”

The latest federal action is part of a larger campaign by ICE, its parent Department of Homeland Security, and the government as a whole. Intellectual property seizures shot up 50 percent this fiscal year compared to last, the White House says. ICE additionally played a role in negotiating the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which requires signatories to broadly use their powers for shutting down websites suspected of hosting copyrighted material.

U.S. lawmakers in September introduced a bill called the Copyright Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, and like the international treaty, it’s been criticized because the law would allow authorities to create internet blacklists containing sites suspected of engaging in “infringing activity.” The bill is stalled for now but could be resurrected once Congress begins a new session in 2011.

Images courtesy Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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Tia Ghose is a researcher and reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch. Before joining the organization in 2010, she was a Kaiser health reporting intern at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her work has appeared in Wired.com, Scientific American, the Salinas Californian, Science News and other publications. She earned a graduate degree in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.