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Official: US govt already seized hundreds of foreign domains

US seizure of a Canadian gambling website caused online outcry as it was registered abroad and thought to be outside American jurisdiction. But this is far from isolated; it has emerged that the US has seized hundreds of foreign domain names.

US customs official Nicole Navas confirmed that the US government has taken control of 750 domains, “most with foreign-based registrars” over the past few years.

Operation “In Our Sites”, an initiative run by US and Immigration Customs Enforcement, is dedicated to shutting down illegal websites that it believes are involved in the distribution of copyright goods and copyright works. It was initially created in 2010 to police US-owned domains, but now appears to have extended its reach using federal court orders to shut down websites.

“The ramifications of this are no less than chilling and every single organization branded or operating under .com, .net, .org, .biz etc. needs to ask themselves about their vulnerability to the whims of US federal and state lawmakers,” said EasyDNS, a multinational domain-hosting company.

The gambling site Bogdan.com was shut down and its owner Canadian billionaire Calvin Ayre prosecuted on the basis that internet gambling is illegal in the US. However, the website was registered to a Canadian server, where gambling is perfectly legal. Homeland security justified the move citing “the movement of funds from accounts outside the US” as the reason.

At first glance it would appear that such a move was beyond US jurisdiction, but this is not so. The US can get at any .com domain through a US-based company called Verisign, which is the only organization authorized to issue new .com domains. In addition, it manages .net, .cc, .tv domains.

It simply has to issue Verisign with a court order that in turn shuts down the offending website. The Public Internet Registry also based in the US is able to do this to .org websites, which it controls.

Verisign told Wired magazine in a statement that it had acted above board and “responds to lawful court orders subject to its technical capabilities.”

The US’s seemingly unbridled power to exercise its influence throughout the web has many online activists worried that this may be what is in store if SOPA and PIPA laws are finally passed.