Bill Could Put Reins on Prosecutors’ Efforts to Seize Domain Names

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Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, has indicated that she is drafting legislation that would seek to increase judicial oversight over prosecutors’ efforts to act against Internet domain names accused of copyright infringement. While the value of such legislation will depend on the details of the bill, the notion of creating greater control over prosecutorial seizure of domain names is laudable.

Lofgren is one of a small number of legislators who voted against the PRO-IP Act of 2008, which authorized the government to shut down websites accused of online piracy or copyright violations by seizing their domain names. Under the enforcement operation that followed passage of that Act – dubbed “Operation In Our Sites” – the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has seized 1,630 domain names, of which 684 have been forfeited to the government. The increasing use of domain name seizures in this area tracks similar use of this tool in other areas of law enforcement such as internet gaming and online pharmaceutical sales.

Specifics about the contemplated legislation have not been disclosed, though Lofgren has been quoted as noting that there are “reasonable arguments” that the way in which the government has seized domain names under the PRO-IP Act violates the Constitution. Lofgren’s bill will apparently propose that the government must provide notice and an opportunity to be heard before domain names are seized or redirected.

The addition of a procedural requirement for notice and hearing prior to domain name seizure would clearly be a favorable development. There have been cases in which the government has seized a domain name and later permitted it to resume operations, under agreed-upon restrictions, pursuant to an arrangement with the affected business. To the extent that businesses may negotiate such arrangements with the government, those arrangements could be reached without the potentially devastating interruption of a seizure. By giving counsel for the affected business the opportunity to be heard, such a requirement may also chill the overuse of domain name seizure by government as a means of gaining unfair leverage in cases involving Internet-based businesses.

The devil, of course, is in the details. Lofgren has reportedly sought input from the online social media community on this bill – particularly from Reddit. Hopefully, she will also seek input from those members of the legal community who have been involved in litigation over domain name seizures as well in order to ensure that the bill presented for consideration is as effective as possible in balancing the interests of all affected parties.