As you may have heard by now, the government seized the domain for megaupload.com last week and has indicted several people. What you probably didn’t know is that they did so by using the same asset forfeiture laws that are constantly abused in drug cases, along with a more recent law. The Boston Globe reports:
Under a 2008 law called the Pro-IP Act, federal authorities can seize the assets of a company charged with copyright violations. The Justice Department exercised that muscle on Thursday, when it shut down one of the Internet’s most popular file-sharing sites: Megaupload.com, accused of distributing illegal copies of music, movies, and books.
A company’s assets include its Internet address, or domain name. Under the Pro-IP Act, the government can seize that domain name from organizations that violate copyrights as long as the online address ends in .com, .org, or .net. Those addresses are issued by a registry based in the United States and are subject to US law.
The Justice Department used “an authority that was [originally] intended for seizing a drug dealer’s cars as a method for shutting down an entire website,’’ said Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.
Sanchez said the same power could be used against other major websites implicated in allegations of data piracy. One potential example: the Swedish site thepiratebay.org, which offers users links for downloading illicit content, and which has a US-registered domain name.
The problem is this: No one has been convicted of anything. People have been indicted, but their assets have already been seized before they even get to see the inside of a courtroom. It’s the same legal fiction that allows the government to violate the Bill of Rights at will in drug cases. And it needs to stop.