Should feds be allowed to shut down websites?

These are bad days to be an online pirate or counterfeiter.

Several tech advocacy groups have been fighting against a pending federal bill that would allow the Department of Justice to go after expedited court orders in order to seize control of domain names for sites “dedicated to infringing activities.”

The bill, dubbed the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), was temporarily defeated when Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) put a hold on the legislation to prevent it from moving from the Senate Judiciary Committee to the Senate floor. That effectively killed the bill, until at least the next session of Congress.

However, the federal government showed last week that it already has plenty of power to block websites, even without a new law.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division recently seized 82 domain names from around the world. Most were for sites selling bootlegged or counterfeit merchandise, but the list also included Torrent-Finder, a search engine for files being shared via the BitTorrent protocol.

The seizure of Torrent-Finder was criticized by some, since the site doesn’t actually host any illegal files itself.

What effect would COICA have if it was passed? According to a Los Angeles Times column, the new law could actually give website operators more protection. For example, domain name owners, rather than just the company that issues domain names, would have to be notified before the seizure.

Also the language describing sites “dedicated to infringing activities” would likely exclude sites such as Torrent-Finder, which help facilitate piracy, instead focusing on sites where illegal activity takes place.

However, in addition to seizing domains, COICA would also allow courts to order U.S. Internet service providers to redirect traffic away from illegal foreign sites.

Opponents like Wyden believe the law would give businesses and government too much power to shut down sites that have content they don’t like. Advocates of the legislation believe something has to be done to put some curbs on intellectual property theft.

Who’s right? Depends on who you talk to. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports the legislation; Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group, opposes it in its current form, as do many free speech advocates.

What do you think? Let us know your opinion in the comments section.

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