DOJ Child Porn Sting Mistakenly Takes Down 84K Domains

The Internet and bureaucracy move at two radically different speeds. Advances in Internet technology, much of it social-media-based these days, proceed amazingly quickly. Lawmaking, not so much.

This is an inherent disconnect, and one that often involves legislation by people with little familiarity with the subject they are legislating on. By the time laws have been made, the technology has oftentimes moved on to something completely different.

Just take a look at the recent Department of Justice announcement that it had disabled a vast array of Internet domains that were being used to distribute child pornography and counterfeit goods. The domains were seized, and a placeholder was put up so that anyone visiting these sites would see this:

C3_Banner_2011_02

A nice, bold, proactive way to torpedo the distributors of kiddie porn, isn’t it? There is only one fly in the ointment: While doing so, the government also seized the domain of a large DNS service provider, mooo.com (which belongs to FreeDNS), and 84,000 subdomains displayed the message above as a result — despite their having no involvement in the sweep.

An overwhelming 84,000 websites, mostly for individuals and small businesses, suddenly trumpeting that they’ve been taken down by the government for one of the most reviled and socially unacceptable practices you can think of. All because the people at the top made an error and the enforcement was sloppy. The reputation damage alone must be staggering.

Think about it, you’re a person with a small business website, and you wake up one morning with that banner in place. How about if you were a potential customer? Here is an excerpt from one reaction by a user who hosted a personal blog on a mooo subdomain (profanity redacted):

You can rest assured that I have not and would never be found to be trafficking in such distasteful and horrific content. A little sleuthing shows that the whole of the mooo.com TLD is impacted. At first, the legitimacy of the alerts seems to be questionable — after all, what reputable agency would display their warning in a fancily formatted image referenced by the underlying HTML? I wouldn’t expect to see that.

Remember what I said at the beginning about people policing the tech who do not understand it? The presentation of the image and the amateurish way in which it was posted go a long way towards proving my point. Let’s continue (again, profanity redacted):

Some bozo by the name of John Morton presides over this particular department of the US government and he has gone on record saying that he’s going to ‘stay at it‘ and is ‘unapologetic on that last point.’

Mr. Morton, with all due respect: ‘f*ck off‘. Get out of my Internet. You’d get no argument from me that there are truly distasteful and illegal things on the Internet. That’s true of any society. But there are also proper ways to deal with these problems. Pulling a total domain, sweeping up innocent people along the way, feeling that you don’t have to comply with due process of law and indicating that you don’t give a damn is wrong. It’s not as wrong as child pornography or counterfeiting, but it’s still wrong. As a taxpayer, I feel you are wasting my money, and denying my ability to use the Internet to host a server containing useful, legal and hopefully interesting content over a readily-known alias. Perhaps I should send you the bill for my time and trouble?

That’s to say nothing of any damage done to my name or reputation by this idiotic law. Last I knew, accusing someone of trafficking in or producing child pornography was about the worst thing you could ever do them, especially if it stuck.

And that is the repeated point in the growing amount of coverage this story is getting: the lack of due process. While I’m willing to bet that there were a few admirers of child porn amongst the websites taken down, the majority of those affected were innocent. They were given no warning and had no interaction with authorities until they were suddenly blazoned as pornographers. How would you feel if that was your business or personal website? What fallout would you be stuck dealing with?

But the fun does not end there. Ernesto on Torrent Freak notes an additional angle on the damage caused here:

Eventually, on Sunday the domain seizure was reverted and the subdomains slowly started to point to the old sites again instead of the accusatory banner. However, since the DNS entries have to propagate, it took another 3 days before the images disappeared completely.

Up to three days of being labeled as a distributor of porn. In Internet time, that is ages. Ernesto not only verifies my assertion that the majority of these were innocent businesses or individuals, but he also shows us:

search on Bing still shows how many innocent sites were claimed to promote child pornography. A rather damaging accusation, which scared and upset many of the site’s owners.

Uneven application of the law is one thing, but this action reeks of something even worse. It would have been bad if all of these websites had been taken down, but the bold statement made by the clumsily implemented graphic that was used could be even worse.

Right now, the majority of the laws we use to moderate online behavior date back to the 1980s. There weren’t even blogs in the ’80s. New legislation is often spearheaded and implemented by those with only a passing familiarity with the tech, something amply illustrated by vice president Biden’s statements about WikiLeaks, when he demanded that the leaked info be taken off the Web. Something that is patently impossible without dismantling the Internet. Once it’s out there, you cannot put the cat back in the bag.

Now let’s be clear — this is not about child porn. This is about the fact that more than 80,000 users had their personal and business images tarnished by sloppy actions on the part of the DOJ and the Department of Homeland Security. Actions that show a limited and imperfect understanding of the arena they are supposed to regulate.

It also demonstrates why I always advise my clients to purchase their own domain rather than utilizing a free service. When you’re using a free service, lumped in with numerous others, you can get caught up in this sort of titanic misstep much more easily, since you are all linked by that service. It won’t completely protect you from unfair treatment, but it might prevent you from joining the ranks of those who have been labeled pornographers.

What I find truly disturbing is that rather than claim responsibility, the DOJ issued a self congratulatory statement that fails to mention any of the innocents swept up in this ill-considered purge. Oddly enough, there was no actual list of affected domains, the innocent sites affected, and no apology anywhere.

I seriously wonder if we will see a class action suit against Homeland Security come out of this.

Source: “U.S. Government Shuts Down 84,000 Websites, ‘By Mistake’,” Torrent Freak, 02/16/11
Source: “From the Blithering Idiots Department…’,” Xanga Forums, 02/12/11
Source: “When Mooo.com Was Seized By ICE, 80K Subdomains Affected,” Dot Weekly, 02/5/11
Image by Dept. of Justice/Homeland Security, Fair Use: Reporting.

About George Williams

George “Loki” Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.

  

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  1. Chris says:

    Wow. What a f!$k up. I wonder how, (if ever) some of these people will recover their losses and reputations. Where is the accountability in all of this?