Thursday, February 10, 2011


SAY WHAT? Say That Again!

by Mike Masnick

The Marketplace radio show from American Public Media spoke to Special Agent James Hayes from Homeland Security, who was apparently in charge of the "raids" (if you can call them that) that involved the seizing of domain names under the legally questionable theory that linking to infringing material is, by itself, criminal copyright infringement. I've yet to find any legal expert who seems to believe that the law actually says this anywhere.

In the interview, John Moe asked Agent Hayes a very simple question: given that these domains were all seized based solely on the fact that they link to infringing content hosted elsewhere, and all of the same content is also linked from Google, will the Feds seize Google's domain name? Well, more specifically, Moe asks if ICE could seize Google's domain name. Amusingly, right after being asked, Hayes conveniently gets cut off, but he does call back and the question is asked again. You can hear the whole thing here:

However, once he gets back, he tries to tap dance around this issue. Hayes says "no" that ICE will not seize Google's domain name and that's because it's only targeting sites that "don't do due diligence" to make sure that the content they're linking to isn't infringing. There's a pretty serious problem with this claim in that it's wrong on both sides of the equation. First off, Google, as a search engine, does no due diligence to check that links only go to non-infringing content. Second, in at least some of the cases (specifically in the case of dajaz1), we know that it was actually Homeland Security and folks like Special Agent Hayes who "failed to do their due diligence," so the songs named in the ICE affidavit were, in fact, provided by the labels or representatives of the musicians. In other words, according to Special Agent Hayes' own criteria, Google is more of a criminal operation that Dajaz1.

Hayes then goes on to repeat the long-debunked talking points of the industry -- insisting that anyone watching a PPV event without paying represents lost revenue. Apparently all the studies that say this isn't the case don't matter, so long as someone who directly financially benefits from Hayes' actions tells him otherwise. On top of that Hayes claims that this leads to lost tax revenue and jobs. Of course, this has also been debunked, since the money "not spent" on these events doesn't disappear, but is still spent in the market and, quite conceivably, ends up going to fund more jobs and industries with higher tax rates.

Also amusing is that Hayes uses this massively tenuous link to "tax revenue" to answer the question so many people have been asking: what the hell does Immigration and Customs have to do with a foreign website? The answer, apparently, is that ICE's mission is to protect the US Treasury and one part of that is to protect tax revenue. Of course, that argument makes no sense. By that same reasoning, when Henry Ford first started mass producing cars, Customs should have shut him down because it killed off jobs in the horse carriage industry, thus decreasing the tax base from that industry. Of course, everyone who thinks this through realizes that's silly, because the money didn't disappear, it shifted elsewhere -- to a more efficient arena, which actually resulted in economic growth and greater taxes. What Hayes and ICE are doing here is the opposite. They're holding back more efficient distribution systems, stifling speech and hindering economic growth, which actually will result in a smaller tax base.

Moe pushes back a little and asks Hayes if he thinks that linking is the same as hosting the content. Hayes doesn't answer, but simply says that they're targeting the sites that "get a lot of traffic," to which Moe reasonably shoots back: "Well, Google gets a lot of traffic." Hayes then makes stuff up about how a search engine is different, but that's based on nothing factual. He makes an artificial distinction and then finally states "well, it's a difference in our mind." Great, so because ICE is technically clueless and thinks there's a difference, it's all fine and dandy?

Moe then asks Hayes if he links to a site that has infringing content from his Public Radio blog, will ICE shut down the site. And Hayes makes a really weird remark that makes no sense, sayings that if Moe "gets advertising funds from a site that provides unauthorized content" then he might have to shut them down. But that's something new. We've seen no assertions or evidence that the sites that have been take down received ads from the other sites that were hosting the content. Is Hayes totally making stuff up now? It sounds like Hayes doesn't even understand what he's talking about.

Finally, Moe asks: if a site links and embeds to all the same content, but does not profit from it (i.e., does not have advertising), is it criminal? Hayes totally punts and says he'd have to check the law. Yes, really. So the guy is not an expert on the technology and admits he's not an expert on the law in question. So what is he an expert in and why is he leading these questionable seizures?

On a separate note, it's nice to see that Homeland Security is willing to chat with the press again after telling us that it will not speak about these issues because it's an "ongoing investigation before court." Apparently, Homeland Security was also lying to me (though, we knew that already).

What's scary about this is that every time someone from Homeland Security speaks on this issue, they display some pretty serious ignorance of the technical issues and of the specific details of the questions people are asking. They seem to get around these with wishful thinking about how -- in their minds -- these sites are "different."

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