Feds wrongly links 84,000 seized sites to child porn

Homeland Security overshoots as it takes down popular mooo.com domain alongside child porn sites

Imagine you're a respectable, law-abiding owner of a small business. You show up to your shop one morning, only to find the doors barred and a big sign in front window reading, "The federal government has seized this business as it's affiliated with creating, distributing, and/or storing child pornography."

Worse yet, imagine that every other business on the block was similarly locked up and had the same damning explanation on their front window. And even once the confusion was cleared up with the feds, it took a few days more to get all the signs down and all of the businesses up and running again.

The Internet equivalent of that scenario transpired over the weekend, according to reports, in a disturbing case of the federal government either grossly abusing its power or wielding it very clumsily.

As part of the successful seizure of 10 Web domains suspected of storing, displaying, or peddling child pornography, the Department of Justice and Homeland Security's ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) office also seized a domain called mooo.com, the most popular shared domain at afraid.org, which belongs to a DNS provider called FreeDNS.

According to FreeDNS, mooo.com isn't a domain used for anything related to child porn; rather, it's home to some 84,000 websites primarily belonging to individuals and small businesses. In pulling the plug on mooo.com, the feds effectively shut down all 84,000 of those sites, but visitors to those sites wouldn't simply get an error along the lines of "This site is currently down," or even "This site has been temporarily seized by Homeland Security."

Nope, instead, a visitor would be taken to a banner with the logos of the Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, beneath which text reading: "This domain name has been seized by ICE -- Homeland Security Investigations pursuant to a seizure warrant ... under the authority of Title 17 USC 2254. Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes...."

According to FreeDNS, mooo.com was seized and suspended on Feb. 11 at around 9:30 p.m. PT. Service was not restored until Feb. 13 at around 7:15 p.m. The admins at FreeDNS noted that once the suspension was lifted, it would still take three days for all affected sites to be fully restored. In other words, not only would some of the sites be unusable by their owners until Feb. 16, but they would continue to display the "child pornography" accusation.

One of the big questions here: How did this happen? Under federal law, ICE simply needs to convince a district court judge to sign a seizure warrant, then order the domain registries to redirect the seized domains to warning message. What's not clear, though, is how or why mooo.com ended up seized. Clerical error? Typo?

An individual who goes by the alias stop_error and whose website was affected by the seizure had some choice words in his blog directed at John Morton, who presides over ICE:

"Mr. Morton, with all due respect: "[Expletive] off". Get out of my Internet. You'd get no argument from me that there are truly distasteful and illegal things on the Internet. That's true of any society. But there are also proper ways to deal with these problems. Pulling a total domain, sweeping up innocent people along the way, feeling that you don't have to comply with due process of law and indicating that you don't give a damn is wrong. It's not as wrong as child pornography or counterfeiting, but it's still wrong. As a taxpayer, I feel you are wasting my money and denying my ability to use the Internet to host a server containing useful, legal and hopefully interesting content over a readily-known alias.... That's to say nothing of any damage done to my name or reputation by this idiotic law."

Whether this incident was caused by sheer carelessness or intentional abuse, it sets a disheartening precedent (or some critics might argue that it perpetuates a disturbing trend.) Yes, the Internet is, in many ways, a lawless and untamed place where cyber crime is rampant. Individuals and businesses alike need to be protected. No one in their right mind would criticize thefeds for shutting down sites dedicated to something as vile as child pornography. At the same time, that protection should not come at the expense of any individual's livelihood, freedom of expression, or civil liberties.

This story, "Feds wrongly links 84,000 seized sites to child porn," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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