A Dispatch from the Copyright Front Lines: MAFIAA Fire takes on ICE

The ongoing conflict between content-industry groups and “open Internet” proponents has been heating up recently in a battle over Internet sites that allegedly allow users to access pirated or counterfeit content. Since last summer, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division has been running a campaign it calls “Operation: In Our Sites” to seize domain names used in alleged criminal copyright infringement activities. Following seizure, visitors to affected web sites, such as www.watchnewfilms.com, see a notice stating that “This domain name has been seized by ICE – Homeland Security Investigations, pursuant to a seizure warrant issued by a United States District Court under the authority of 18 U.S.C. §§ 981 and 2323.” The fourth and latest round of seizures reportedly took place on May 21. Opponents of these measures charge that the seizures amount to censorship, and have questioned their legality as well as their effectiveness.

The seizure orders work by requiring the domain name registry to redirect the URL of an allegedly infringing web site to the warning notice quoted above, instead of the targeted site. The site still remains accessible via its IP address, however, and many owners simply set up new domain names, often registered in foreign countries, to direct users to their sites. Enter the anonymous coder(s) behind MAFIAA Fire, a browser plug-in designed to circumvent ICE’s shut-down efforts. When a user downloads and installs the plug-in and then points his or her browser to a domain name that has been seized, the MAFIAA Fire software consults a list of seized and replacement domain names and automatically redirects the browser to the new URL. The user is taken seamlessly to the requested site, not to the ICE warning at the original URL. (As explained in MAFIAA Fire’s unabashedly partisan FAQ, the name refers to the “Music and Film Industry Association of America,” a spoof “industry group” purportedly created out of the merger of the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, the real organizations that MAFIAA Fire’s creators believe to be behind ICE’s enforcement efforts.) The MAFIAA Fire site claims the plug-in has been downloaded more than 70,000 times since it became available in early April.

MAFIAA Fire obviously stands to put a significant dent in the effectiveness of ICE’s seizure technique. Shortly after the tool became available, the Department of Homeland Security contacted Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the popular Firefox browser, and asked it to disable access to the MAFIAA Fire plug-in for Firefox. According to a blog post by Harvey Anderson, Mozilla’s VP of Business Affairs and General Counsel, Mozilla responded by sending back a series of pointed questions about the legal basis for the request. Anderson explained in his blog post that Mozilla’s “approach is to comply with valid court orders, warrants, and legal mandates, but in this case there was no such court order.” As of Anderson’s latest report, Homeland Security had not responded to Mozilla’s queries, and for now, MAFIAA Fire remains available on Mozilla’s Firefox add-on download site.

Meanwhile, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced this month the “Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011” – a.k.a. the PROTECT IP Act – which would enhance the government’s enforcement options against foreign sites hosting infringing content, and potentially shrink the loophole that MAFIAA Fire exploits. And so, as the content provider/open Internet war rages on in battlegrounds ranging from Congress to courts to activist coders’ individual laptops, MAFIAA Fire is playing its own small part in shaping the evolving legal and technological boundaries of copyright.

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