For many years, major U.S. entertainment companies have been trying to gain the power to make websites disappear from the Internet at their say-so. The Internet blacklist bills SOPA and PIPA were part of that strategy, along with the Department of Homeland Security’s project of seizing websites that someone accused of copyright infringement. Hollywood’s quest for more censorship power was on display again today at a House of Representatives committee hearing that was supposed to be discussing reforms at ICANN, the nonprofit organization that oversees the Internet’s domain name system. Amidst a discussion of new top-level domain names (such as “.sucks”), a lawyer representing the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and other groups told the House Judiciary Committee’s Internet subcommittee that ICANN should force the companies that register domain names to suspend domains based on accusations of copyright infringement.
If this sounds familiar, that’s probably because it’s exactly the sort of system that the disastrous SOPA bill would have created—one where entire websites can be forced to go dark, without a day in court, because some material on the site is accused of infringing a copyright. We wrote about this strategy in March, when it appeared in the US Trade Representative’s “Notorious Markets List,” also at Hollywood’s request.
This new strategy to obtain censorship power is based on vague language in the agreements that ICANN made with the companies selling names in new top-level domains like .website, .ninja, and .biz. The agreements say that domain name registrars “shall take reasonable and prompt steps to investigate and respond appropriately to any reports of abuse.” The agreements don’t mention copyright, or require domain registrars to disable a domain without a court order. But that didn’t stop Steve Metalitz, the lawyer for a coalition that includes MPAA and RIAA, from arguing that “reports of abuse that are submitted to registrars by right-holders” should lead to “investigation” and “redress.” Of course, a registrar like Tucows or Namecheap has no control over the contents of websites—they simply register domain names. From a technical standpoint, the only “redress” a registrar can offer to a copyright holder such as a movie studio is to suspend a site’s domain name, making the entire site inaccessible to most visitors.
In recent years copyright holders have demanded stricter anti-piracy measures from ISPs, search engines, advertising networks and payment processors, with varying results.
Continuing this trend various entertainment industry groups are now going after companies that offer domain name services.
The MPAA, for example, has joined the domain name system oversight body ICANN and is pushing for policy changes from the inside.
A few days ago the RIAA added more pressure. The music group sent a letter to ICANN on behalf of several industry players asking for tougher measures against pirate domains.
The RIAA’s senior vice president Victoria Sheckler wants the Internet to be a safe place for all, where music creation and distribution can thrive.
“… we expect all in the internet ecosystem to take responsible measures to deter copyright infringement to help meet this goal,” she notes.
The music groups believe, however, that domain registrars don’t do enough to combat piracy. ICANN’s most recent registrar agreement states that domain names should not be used for copyright infringement, but most registrars fail to take action in response.
Instead, many registrars simply note that it’s not their responsibility to act against pirate sites.
“We […] do not see how it is an appropriate response from a registrar to tell a complainant that it has investigated or responded appropriately to a copyright abuse complaint by stating it does not provide non-registrar related services to the site in question,” Sheckler writes.
In what appears to be a coordinated effort to pressure ICANN and other players in the domain name industry, the U.S. Government also chimed in last week.
According to the U.S. Trade Representative, Canada-based Tucows is reported as “an example of a registrar that fails to take action when notified of its clients’ infringing activity.”
Despite the critique, it’s far from clear that Tucows and other registrars are doing anything wrong. In fact, the Electronic Frontier Foundation
“Domain registrars do not have an obligation to respond to a random third party’s complaints about the behavior of a domain name user. Unless ordered by a court, registrars cannot be compelled to take down a website,” notes Jeremy Malcolm, EFF’s Senior Global Policy Analyst.
“What the entertainment industry groups are doing is exaggerating the obligations that registrars of global top-level domains (gTLDs) have under their agreement with ICANN to investigate reports of illegal activity by domain owners, an expansion of responsibilities that is, to put it mildly, extremely controversial, and not reflected in current laws or norms.”
Law or no law, the entertainment industry groups are not expected to back down. They hope that ICANN will help to convince registrars that pirate sites should be disconnected, whether they like it or not.
As part of the annual joke from the USTR known as the Special 301 Report (which is so ridiculous that even top people at the US Copyright Office mock the USTR about it), the USTR publishes what it calls its “notorious markets list.” The Special 301 Report, if you don’t know, is the report where big companies whine to the USTR about countries those companies feel don’t respect US intellectual property rights enough. The USTR collects all of those whinings, and rewrites it as a report to send out to US diplomats to try to shame countries into “cracking down” on the behaviors that these companies don’t like — no matter whether or not it complies with US or local intellectual property laws. Starting a few years ago, the USTR broke out a separate list of online websites, which it refers to as “notorious markets.” It started doing this in 2011, in a process that was intended to support SOPA (because SOPA supporters wanted the list of “rogue” sites that would be banned under SOPA).
The USTR itself admits that there’s basically no objective or legal rationale behind its process:
The List does not purport to reflect findings of legal violations, nor does it reflect the U.S. Government’s analysis of the general IPR protection and enforcement climate in the country concerned.
The latest Notorious Markets list is out (technically, it’s the “2014 Out-of-Cycle Review of Notorious Markets”) and it’s full of the usual misleading crap. It’s quite amazing to watch US government officials celebrating the censorship of online forums and websites, calling it “progress.” Free expression is not particularly important to the USTR when the MPAA complains about it, apparently.
But the really astounding move in this latest report is by the USTR to start including domain registrars as “notorious markets,” including one of the most popular and widely used registrar in the world, Tucows:
This year, USTR is highlighting the issue of certain domain name registrars. Registrars are the commercial entities or organizations that manage the registration of Internet domain names, and some of them reportedly are playing a role in supporting counterfeiting and piracy online.
And here is the entry against Tucows:
Tucows.com: Based in Canada, Tucows is reportedly an example of a registrar that fails to take action when notified of its clients’ infringing activity. Consistent with the discussion above, USTR encourages the operators of Tucows to work with relevant stakeholders to address complaints.