The head of the Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency Tuesday defended his agency's aggressive efforts to combat online piracy and counterfeiting by seizing Internet domain names.
During a speech at the annual State of the Net conference, ICE Director John Morton defended the agency's "Operation In Our Sites" actions that involved the issuance of warrants in June to seize nine Internet domain names engaged in piracy of copyrighted content. A second operation carried out in November involved the seizure of 82 domain names of commercial websites that the agency said were illegally selling and distributing counterfeit goods and copyrighted works.
Morton said the first action led many other sites that offer pirated content and counterfeit products to voluntarily shut themselves down. "In my many years of law enforcement, I have never seen that kind of deterrence come from a single law enforcement action," he said.
He added that the agency would continue such enforcement actions and "to exercise good judgment about how we did this." He noted the agency has sought court orders for its actions and has no intention of being "the cop of the Net" nor in limiting free speech.
"We will follow criminal activity where it occurs including on the Internet," Morton said. "We can't live in a society where the Internet has some protection for criminals. ... We are going to stay at it. I am not apologetic on this last point."
Computer and Communications Industry Association President Ed Black questioned Morton on whether the seizure of domain names sets a precedent that will allow less democratic governments around the world, such as China or Iran, to seize domain names in the name of intellectual property protection when they are really just shutting down political speech they oppose.
Morton said the agency must balance competing interests but added that "my view is that I don't want to pursue work on ICE based on concerns on how another country may misapply what we're doing."
Several groups and companies that produce copyrighted works or represent content producers have applauded the domain name seizures. Several of these groups and firms sent a letter Tuesday to Morton and Attorney General Eric Holder urging them to "continue to act against the kinds of domains that you have targeted."
The groups, which included several companies, such as Nike and Timberland, and content producers, such as Curb Music Publishing, NBC Universal and Viacom, also called on the officials to work with lawmakers on legislation, first offered last Congress by Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., targeting foreign websites that offer pirated content or counterfeit goods.
"The carefully balanced measure would allow American law enforcement officials and U.S. courts to deny thieves the ability to use the Internet to enter the U.S. market and undermine our businesses while reaping financial gain for themselves," the letter said.
Morton said after his speech that the Obama administration has not taken a position on Leahy's bill, which the lawmaker plans to reintroduce. But Morton added that U.S. law enforcement agencies could use more tools to target foreign websites that offer pirated content and counterfeit or stolen goods and to keep up with new technologies. He said he planned to discuss such concerns with Leahy and other lawmakers.
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