Imagine if the US government, with no notice or warning, raided a small but popular magazine’s offices over a Thanksgiving weekend, seized the company’s printing presses, and told the world that the magazine was a criminal enterprise with a giant banner on their building. Then imagine that it never arrested anyone, never let a trial happen, and filed everything about the case under seal, not even letting the magazine’s lawyers talk to the judge presiding over the case. And it continued to deny any due process at all for over a year, before finally just handing everything back to the magazine and pretending nothing happened. I expect most people would be outraged. I expect that nearly all of you would say that’s a classic case of prior restraint, a massive First Amendment violation, and exactly the kind of thing that does not, or should not, happen in the United States.
But, in a story that’s been in the making for over a year, and which we’re exposing to the public for the first time now, this is exactly the scenario that has played out over the past year — with the only difference being that, rather than “a printing press” and a “magazine,” the story involved “a domain” and a “blog.”
There are so many things about this story that are crazy, it’s difficult to know where to start, so let’s give the most important point first: The US government has effectively admitted that it totally screwed up and falsely seized & censored a non-infringing domain of a popular blog, having falsely claimed that it was taking part in criminal copyright infringement. Then, after trying to hide behind a totally secretive court process with absolutely no due process whatsoever (in fact, not even serving papers on the lawyer for the site or providing timely notifications — or providing any documents at all), for over a year, the government has finally realized it couldn’t hide any more and has given up, and returned the domain name to its original owner. If you ever wanted to understand why ICE’s domain seizures violate the law — and why SOPA and PROTECT IP are almost certainly unconstitutional — look no further than what happened in this case.