News broke Tuesday that a British police agency called the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), had taken control of the popular music blog RnBXclusive and arrested one of the site’s creators for fraud. The normal content from the site was completely unavailable, replaced with a new splash page: a notice from SOCA stating that it had taken control of the domain. Initial reports claimed that that the domain had been seized by the UK government agency -- bringing to mind images of a post-SOPA fractured Internet -- but it turned out that the website takeover was done with the cooperation of the UK-based hosting company, Rackspace’s UK arm. For its part, Rackspace claimed that the music site was taken down for breaching its Terms and Conditions.

The initial splash page that the site displayed after the takedown was replete with exaggerations and misstatements of law. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick ripped the notice apart, explaining the problems with the way that SOCA handled the situation. The original SOCA notice has since been taken down and replaced with a more accurately worded statement, but an image of the original is viewable here.

The baseless claims in the original notice included the statement that a majority of the music files previously available via the site had been stolen, and that:

As a result of illegal downloads young, emerging artists may have had their careers damaged. If you have illegally downloaded music you will have damaged the future of the music industry.

Most disconcertingly, the notice stated that visitors who had downloaded music from RnBXclusive may have committed a crime with a penalty of 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. It also stated that SOCA has "the capability to monitor and investigate you, and can inform your Internet service provider of these infringements."

Then, in a move that could only be described as intimidating, it went on to display the visitor’s operating system and IP address with a statement below that read, "The above information can be used to identify you and your location."

This situation is alarming on several levels. It is unknown whether there was a court order that directed the hosting provider to take down this site, or whether the hosting company voluntarily removed the previous content. Open Rights Group is reporting that Rackspace’s UK arm is hosting the holding page. Why would it allow SOCA to put up the holding page without a court order?

We initially feared that this was a domain seizure, as when last year the domain registrar for .uk domains, Nominet, admitted to helping police authorities seize 3,000 websites and proposed new rules to expedite domain takedowns so that police authorities would not need court orders to do so. Whether this proposal was actually enacted remains unclear, but the chilling effect that both these cases have on free expression is undeniable.

Technology writer Glyn Moody reports that SOCA charged fraud because the music blog had allegedly been sharing pre-release works somehow obtained without authorization from music industry sites. If that’s true, SOCA’s involvement may not be quite as surprising as it initially appeared. But as SOCA has released no evidence in support of its allegation, it will be interesting to see how this proceeds.

In any case, this week’s takeover sets a dangerous precedent for copyright enforcement measures in the UK. If the hosting provider took down this site voluntarily without any court oversight, it raises the prospects of future cases being dealt with in a similar extrajudicial manner. Though the Internet blacklist legislation which would have facilitated similar takedowns in the U.S. has been stopped for now, we must keep a close eye on these sorts of alternative methods of online censorship that are implemented in the name of copyright enforcement.


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