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Seizing web sites does not violate the First Amendment

US federal judge backs the US government
Fri Aug 05 2011, 15:17

US FEDERAL JUDGE Paul Crotty has handed down a cursory opinion refusing to return seized domain names.

The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) seizes the domain names of web sites that it believes are in some way breaking the law, and while there are cases when ICE has taken down domains that host highly objectionable content, there are also times when its actions leave much to be desired. One such case was against Puerto 80, a Spanish company that runs sports video streaming web sites.

ICE seized the domain names of two web sites run by Puerto 80 even though a Spanish court had ruled that the sites did not violate copyright law. Not only did Judge Crotty refuse to hand the domains back to Puerto 80 but he said that the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees free speech, is not violated by shutting down web sites through seizing their domain names. His argument rests on the fact that there are other web sites where internet users can discuss matters.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) claims that the US Supreme Court contradicts Judge Crotty's argument regarding the First Amendment, quoting a 1939 case saying that a secondary source of information does not mean that shutting down the first source of information does not violate free speech rights. That decision reads, "One is not to have the exercise of his liberty of expression in appropriate places abridged on the plea that it may be exercised elsewhere".

The EFF said it found the ruling "profoundly disappointing" and that "certainly doesn't bode well for the rights of folks whose websites might be targeted under the PROTECT-IP Act now pending in Congress". The Protect IP act is intended to block access to websites registered outside of the US that might be conducting 'infringing activities'.

Aside from the deeply worrying free speech issues, at stake the fact is that Puerto 80, a Spanish company that had been judged by a Spanish court as not violating copyrights, is being refused the use of its legitimate property. This sort of thing is likely to further motivate companies to shy away from using top level domains that are controlled by US based organisations. µ


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