The Ramifications of US Government Domain Takedowns

When I posted about the domain takedown the last thing I expected was for it to have “gone viral” the way it did. Given everything this company has been through and all the issues we’ve commented on (SOPA, Bill C-30, Elephant Snuff, Jotform), this one took the cake and was the most read article on this blog, ever. It came close to matching all previous posts ever published on here combined.

It crashed the blog twice, and the systems guys learned a heck of a lot about the various caching and tuning options for wordpress in a rapid and impromptu manner.

I watched the discourse around this and heard back from a lot of people and wanted to follow up with some additional thoughts around this issue…

Verisign’s role in all this…

The post would have been more aptly titled “Verisign Ordered to Seize Foreign Domain on Behalf of US Authorities”. It was, after all, a court order. Verisign complied with a federal court order in their own country. So would we, so would anybody. It’s not like you have any choice in the matter. I hope Verisign only does this when ordered to by the courts, and not simply when “requested” to, as per their original takedown proposal.

The underlying issue remains: That US government authorities can take down any domain under .com, .net, .org, .biz  and even country-code TLDs if they are operated by Verisign or some other US-based registry operator (.tv, .cc, etc). Doesn’t matter where the owner of the domain is, doesn’t matter where the domain registrar is, as long as the registry operator is US-based, the US Gov can take it down.

It was a federal warrant, not state…

More than one person pointed out to me that it was not the State of Maryland that ordered this takedown, it was a federal warrant that was filed in the State of Maryland. This is just me not knowing the nuances. I believe I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m a geek, not a lawyer.

Crimes were committed (in the U.S.)

The biggest takeaway a lot of people got was that the Bodog group did not commit any crime in the US, but were taken down for things they did outside of the US. That the US was projecting it’s laws outside the country.

Here’s where things get nebulous. Obviously,  when Americans gamble online they are breaking the law.

But…if what I’m doing is legal where I’m doing it, is it my problem to make sure it’s legal where somebody else is doing it? Is that even possible? This is one of those areas where the Internet knocks things off their axis and becomes akin to a legal equivalent of some bizarre quantum mechanics problem. The Schrodinger’s Cat conundrum or a double-slit experiment wherein two sides of the same transaction are simultaneously breaking the law whilst adhering to it, depending on the legal jurisdiction of the observer, the participants and the location of …what else? The servers? The cloud? The DNS entries controlling the traffic? Where the tubes are?

First They Came for Wikileaks…

When the original Verisign takedown proposal was tabled, or later when SOPA came out, I read between the lines and saw my “unthinkable scenario”, which basically was that all .CNOBI domains would fall under US law because of the locations of their respective registries (I have since learned that the .info registry, which is Dublin-based operates out of Toronto).

If you point out that the US government can then takedown any domain for any reason, the typical rebuttal is the ole adage, “but you only would have to worry about it if you’re doing something illegal”.

When I hear that argument I refer back to what we here at easyDNS endearingly call “The Wikileaks Epic Fiasco”. It was bullshit from end-to-end (and I don’t even mean the clusterfsck that got us mixed up in it). The always impartial mainstream media suggested Julian Assange be declared “an enemy combatant” and at least one politician alluded that he should be assassinated. Phone calls were made to infrastructure suppliers and an online embargo was enacted against them. To this day they have still never been charged with a crime, and there was a frightening lack of due process in all of it. Now that the ICE takedowns have commenced and these sort of domain seizures occur, I am certain that when the next politically inconvenient egregious truth-teller comes along, they’ll resort to using it.

And Then They Came for Richard O’Dwyer…

But then even due process can run amok and become a grotesque caricature of itself: just ask Richard O’Dwyer, whom I was unaware of until after that article posted when his mother retweeted it with the comment “I do keep recommending that we should avoid US Domains”. She would know. Her son faces extradition to the US on two counts of copyright infringement, each charge carrying a maximum sentence of 5 years. All for running a website that did not host anything but merely linked to external sources. It isn’t even clear if what he did was illegal in the U.K, but even British authorities concede that even if it was, it wasn’t too serious. None of the servers O’Dwyer ran were in the US (they were in Sweden) and he even moved off of his .net domain and onto .cc (but guess who runs .cc? Yes, Verisign again). It didn’t help, the .cc domain was also seized and even though O’Dwyer shut down his website the next day, the extradition still looms.

How To Win Friends and Influence People, US Government style…

The ramifications of the Richard O’Dwyer story freaked me out to the point that I rebranded one of my other, smaller web properties (a large file transfer service) from .net to .ca that same night.

We are having conversations internally around rebranding off of and onto simply because our business can best be described “risk reduction”. We do not want to have to rely on the cluefulness of a bureaucrat to not get taken offline in an act of massive overkill (a la – see “US Government Mistakenly Takes Down 84,000 Websites”).

We are not the only people doing this calculus. We have commented elsewhere that we have gained some business from companies looking to minimize their exposure to the US for exactly these reasons.

The irony is that a misguided crusade to make the internet “safe” for (pick one): US IP holders, US children or US pathological gamblers is only succeeding in making it unsafe to conduct any online business in the US and the big losers will be: US Businesses.

The Great Internet Inflection Point:

One of my favorite expressions is that one should “never blame on conspiracy that which can be explained by stupidity”. Surely all of this nonsense with misguided domain takedowns and overreach can be explained by the sheer cluelessness of politicians and lawmakers? Clowns who think the internet is a series of tubes that cause cancer in lab rats and is unsafe at any speed.

But then you have to listen to some of the nonsense these guys expect us to swallow and you have to figure that it’s impossible to be that stupid and in power. There has to be a deeper game. A good example is Bill C-30, up here in Canada, an obvious internet surveillance bill nonsensically entitled the “Protecting Children From Predators Act”. When you put all the pieces together (C-30 here, the subtext of SOPA, etc) it is hard not to arrive at the conclusion, or at least the suspicion that various governments are methodically trying to curtail the internet. Put a lid on it. Keep it under control.

I remember back in the mid 90’s when all of this was starting to accelerate, there was a lot of talk about how when these paradigm shifts hit, the old guard desperately tries to hold on to the old model while the new model disrupts everything and freaks everybody out. There was a lot of talk around “revolution” and earth shaking changes. And then the  Internet achieved such deep penetration into the very fabric of our lives that it sort of became…normal. Mainstream. The “revolution” talk died down and it became more about viral memes and attention deficit syndrome.

But then all of the sudden, revolutions were back….The Arab Spring and the Occupy movement happened and they were largely driven by this already entrenched internet. Suddenly copyright infringement is treated more seriously than murder, and at every step along the way the political class can be relied upon to largely miss the point of all of it.

What is happening now: between government initiatives to impose control on the internet and the larger behemoths within it (Google, Facebook, Twitter) unveiling new (anti)privacy policies to play ball, we seem to be headed into that crucial inflection point where we, as a society decide if the internet will continue to be the great liberator, empowerment tool, and economic elixir that is has been thus far, or if it will become the ultimate surveillance machine. I doubt it can be both.

To the lawmaker who says we that we simply need to make the internet “safe”, I tell them: the way to do that is via education, not legislation.

2 thoughts on “The Ramifications of US Government Domain Takedowns”

  1. Team in Belfast says:

    Can the US Govt take down literally any domain;

    even North Korean or Iranian ?

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