Even without passing new legislation regulating what Americans can and can’t do on the Web, recently unsealed court records reveal that federal authorities took down a music website for one year without ever filing charges.
A federal court in Los Angeles has released documents relating to a case against a music site, Dajaz1.com, that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) took offline back in 2010. At the time, government investigators insisted that the popular hip-hop blog was linking visitors to external pages that hosted unauthorized recordings of copyrighted material that users could download for free. For over a year, the website was rendered unavailable as its administrator became embroiled in a legal debate over alleged infringement charges. Now that a judge has unsealed the “evidence” against the site, it is clear that there was never a case.
What the government did have, however, was a cooperative relationship with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Under the demand of one of the largest trade organizations in the entertainment industry — that’s coincidently also one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington — the US Justice System bowed to the RIAA’s orders to suppress the site’s webmaster for publishing any content without ever being able to charge him with a crime.
At the request of Wired, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the First Amendment Coalition, a federal judge has released the facts of the case that prosecutors never could get off the ground. Speaking to Wired, EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn insists that the government’s attempt to ground the blog was merely bought by the RIAA. For 13 months, the judge time and time again granted government agents extensions to try and build a case against the blog, but despite having over a year to effort enough evidence to file charges, neither federal agents nor the RIAA could ever prove that they were in the right.
In the meantime, the website’s owner was essentially stripped of his First Amendment rights.
“Here you have ICE making a seizure, based on the say-so of the record company guys, and getting secret extensions as they wait for their masters, the record companies, for evidence to prosecute,” Cohn tells Wired this week. “This is the RIAA controlling a government investigation and holding it up for a year.”
Andrew Reynolds, an agent with the US Department of Homeland Security, asked US District Judge Margaret Morrow for three separate extensions to build a case against Djaz1 for over a year. In the last insistence, Reynolds wrote that authorities required more time to bring the case to trial because “a sampling of content obtained from the Dajaz1.com website and its purported affiliate websites was submitted for rights holder evaluation and has yet to be returned.”
Reynolds had initially claimed that he had downloaded four unauthorized, copyrighted songs from the blog — but it was the RIAA that actually directed the special agent to the site in hopes of getting it shut down and setting an example. Although the site did end up offline — only to go live again a few months back — it seems as if the only thing that the government was able to prove is that they are willing to work their hardest to appease the Hollywood industry bigwigs that line their pockets.
“The records confirm what was already suggested by the initial affidavit used to obtain the seizure order: that ICE, and its attorneys, are effectively acting as the hired gun of the content industry at taxpayers’ expense,” the EFF says in a statement.
“Instead of relying on rightsholders to determine whether a seizure was appropriate, the government should have been conducting its own thorough investigation. If it had acted in anything like good faith, it could have determined that the site wasn’t a proper target even before the seizure, or at least could have discovered and rectified the mistake before a year had passed.”
Since the late 90s boom of file-sharing services and easily transferable MP3 files, the RIAA has repeatedly tried to take on the Internet by demanding websites be shut down and heavily penalized. When one of the world’s most visited file-sharing sites, Megaupload, went offline earlier this year, hacktivists with the collective Anonymous responded by crippling the RIAA’s official site through a series of attacks.
In a document that circulated online last year during the height of Congress’ fight to pass the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, advocates for an open Internet argued, “It is often difficult for us average folk to sympathize with the billionaire performers in Hollywood and RIAA/MPAA who claim that we're stealing from them and compromising profit.
“They are correct – it is stealing, plain and simple. However, you don't see blanket legislation that infringes our basic privacy for any other crime, like shoplifting.”
Web surfers did, however, win an impressive battle in America’s court system this week: Judge Gary Brown of the Eastern District of New York ruled this week that copyright holders can not accuse people of infringement based off of their IP addresses alone, essentially making the torrenting of music and other files safe from the broad, blanketing lawsuits launched in recent years by the RIAA and others.