CYBERSPACE—Anyone want to bet that that the U.S. government will never again mistakenly shutter websites it believes are involved in illegal activity? I didn’t think so. As Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Justice, by way of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), become more aggressive in their determination to take offline websites that deal in counterfeit goods and child pornography, innocent website operators are being swept up in the net.
In the latest snafu, TorrentFreak has reported that last Friday 84,000 site owners were “surprised by a rather worrying banner that was placed on their domain.”
A message on the banner read, ominously, “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution.”
Unfortunately for everyone involved, the 84,000 sites were not involved in child pornography, but were simply hosted by a large DNS service provider.
“The domain in question is mooo.com, which belongs to the DNS provider FreeDNS,” reported TorrentFreak. “It is the most popular shared domain at afraid.org and as a result of the authorities’ actions a massive 84,000 subdomains were wrongfully seized as well. All sites were redirected to the banner below.
“The FreeDNS owner was taken by surprise and quickly released the following statement on their website. ‘Freedns.afraid.org has never allowed this type of abuse of its DNS service. We are working to get the issue sorted as quickly as possible.’”
By today, most of the domains are back online, but the residual effects of being targeted by your own government for a crime you did not commit has domain owners are feeling understandable skittish, and even defensive. One posted the following message in reaction.
“One of the customers quickly went out to assure visitors that his site was not involved in any of the alleged crimes.
“You can rest assured that I have not and would never be found to be trafficking in such distasteful and horrific content,” the site owner wrote. “A little sleuthing shows that the whole of the mooo.com TLD is impacted. At first, the legitimacy of the alerts seems to be questionable—after all, what reputable agency would display their warning in a fancily formatted image referenced by the underlying HTML? I wouldn’t expect to see that.”
As for the law enforcement agencies presumably responsible for the error, an apology does not seem to be forthcoming, or even an acknowledgement that anything went wrong. A press release posted to the Homeland security website Tuesday serves up bucketfuls of self-congratulations for taking 10 websites offline, but makes no mention of the 84,000 sites.
"For all its positive impact, the Internet has also unfortunately created a new way for child predators to commit their inexcusable crimes," Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer of the U.S. Department of Justice, Criminal Division is quoted as saying. "The production and distribution of child pornography wreak havoc on innocent lives. With these domain seizures, we are taking our fight against child pornography to websites that facilitate the exchange of these abusive images."
False accusations wreak peoples’ lives, too, but the government must be saving that warning for a later press release.