After a year-long seizure and six more months of secrecy, the court records were finally released concerning the mysterious government takedown of Dajaz1.com – a popular blog dedicated to hip hop music and culture. The records confirm that one of the key reasons the blog remained censored for so long is that the government obtained three secret extensions of time by claiming that it was waiting for “rights holders” and later, the Recording Industry Association of America, to evaluate a "sampling of allegedly infringing content" obtained from the website and respond to other “outstanding questions.”
In other words, having goaded the government into an outrageous and very public seizure of the blog, the RIAA members refused to follow up and answer the government’s questions. In turn, the government acted shamefully, not returning the blog or apologizing for its apparent mistake, but instead secretly asking the court to extend the seizure and deny Dajaz1 the right to seek return of its property or otherwise get due process. The government also refused to answer Congressional questions about the case. ICE finally released the domain name in December of 2011, again with no explanation.
It’s not hard to guess what some of the unanswered “outstanding questions” might have been. Dajaz1.com, was seized with much fanfare by the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division of the Department of Homeland Security over the 2010 Thanksgiving weekend. It was widely reported at the time that Dajaz1 should never have been targeted, that much of the blog’s content was lawful, and that many of the allegedly infringing links were given to the site’s owner by artists and labels themselves – including Kanye West, Diddy, and a vice president of a major record label. So, at a minimum, we imagine the government was asking the RIAA to provide some evidence that the seizure was justified in the first place.
EFF teamed with the California First Amendment Coalition, represented by Josh Koltun, and our efforts were joined by Wired, in seeking the unsealing of the court records. Confronted with the prospect of having to defend the ongoing secrecy in court even after had it returned the domain, the government agreed to allow the records to be unsealed.
Now that the full court records are out, this seizure raises critical questions about the government’s use of its new powers to shut down lawful speech in the form of domain seizures for alleged copyright infringements. It also demonstrates the basic unfairness of the processes and secrecy invoked here and possibly in hundreds of other domain name seizures across the country. For nearly a year, the government muzzled Dajaz1.com – denying the blog’s author the right to speak and the public’s right to read what was published there – and then compounded matters by claiming extreme secrecy and blocking the Dajaz1 and the public’s access to information about the case.
Equally troubling, 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. 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.
The whole story is, in a word, appalling. The only silver lining? U.S. taxpayers and their representatives have an object lesson, if one were needed, in why the government should not be granted new IP enforcement powers and why we need to reconsider the inclusion of copyright infringement as a basis for civil seizure and forfeiture. And in the short term, maybe when Hollywood comes knocking again, ICE will remember that the RIAA isn’t such a reliable crime-fighting partner after all.