Showing posts with label SOPA. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SOPA. Show all posts

Monday, September 10, 2012

GoDaddy Attacked By Pro-Piracy Hacker(?)

Yesterday, GoDaddy, one of the Internet's largest webhosts and registrars, was believed to have been attacked by an anonymous cyber-terrorist purportedly because of the Internet company's initial support for the Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA").

Our readers will recall that SOPA became a hot topic earlier this year, but the controversial anti-piracy legislation was effectively tabled due to vocal online protests.

It would appear from more recent reports that GoDaddy's problems may have been of the more internal variety, and not the work of pro-piracy hackers.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Internet is Becoming a Perpetually Lawless Frontier

In the American frontier of the 19th Century, outlaws found virtually unbounded opportunities to rob pioneers of their treasured few possessions, while the few understaffed lawmen faced difficulty detecting, arresting, holding, and convicting wrongdoers.  In the early 21st Century, the Internet represents a similarly lawless frontier.  A virtually infinite supply of domain names and websites has generated a gold rush mentality, as millions have sought to cash in by speculating on the virtual real estate that the Internet seems to offer.

The Internet’s frontier mentality has also attracted its share of brigands.  Those seeking to rob web users of their hard-earned money are the same types of predators who mastered the arts of deceit, theft and counterfeiting on the bygone frontier.  While their methods may be far more sophisticated, their fundamental approach is the same as old-fashioned con men.

Without any form of meaningful regulation, a dramatic new expansion of the Internet frontier is occurring, and is threatening to undermine any semblance of law and order that has been struggling to develop over the Internet.  The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, (“ICANN”) recently announced that it has received applications for more than 1,900 new domain name extensions, including: .BID, .BUY, .DEAL, .DESIGN, .DISCOUNT, .FASHION, .FREE, .GIFT, .HOT, .JEWELRY, .LOL, .LUXURY, .ONLINE, .SALE, .SHOP, .STORE, .VIP, .WATCHES, .WEB, .WTF, and .WOW.  Hundreds of these applications will likely be approved, and tens of millions of new domain names may be in use with these new extensions by the end of next year.

“ICANN’s program may open up new opportunities, but it also presents a whole new frontier of potential—and likely—abuse by those seeking to profit from the name, reputation, and content of others,” said Scott Bain, Chief Litigation Counsel for the Software and Information Industry Association, quoted by the Washington Post.

But everyday e-commerce web users are already facing a never-ending barrage of spurious websites selling counterfeit products online.  It is absolutely clear that in the absence of appropriate and effective legal structures requiring stricter verification and identification of domain name ownership and control, a dramatic and unprecedented expansion could be catastrophic for brand owners and consumers alike. 

Faced with the bruising public defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (“SOPA”) in January 2012, brand owners have undertaken aggressive actions to address online counterfeiting, including filing mega-lawsuits in federal court using existing laws and technology.  However, the online counterfeiting threat persists, and by some accounts has increased markedly.

ICANN president Rod Beckstrom said in a recent press conference that the group has added new provisions to protect intellectual property, including the option for rapid takedown when brand holders feel their IP may be threatened.  ICANN also reserves the right to take a domain name back if it there is significant abuse.

But ICANN should not be entitled to create a perpetually lawless frontier without applying consistent and binding legal regulations about the already-rampant intellectual property abuse occurring on the Internet.  

Without strict disclosure and domain name ownership laws in place, ICANN runs the risk of establishing the Internet as perpetual “wild west,” without any lawmen on their way to bring law and order to the troubled frontier.

Congress should act now to intervene and hold additional public hearings on how ICANN’s proposed domain name expansion program will affect consumers and brand owners, in the absence of laws addressing intellectual property abuse and consumer fraud already perpetrated online.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Internet Independence Declared, But the War to Regulate the Internet Has Only Just Begun

Wikipedia, Yahoo, Google and Facebook are among the usual suspects that have successfully galvanized public opposition to proposed online regulations.  The same cast of characters recently declared an Internet "Day of Independence."  But those seeking to enforce existing laws and enter into treaties regulating the Internet are finding themselves facing even more formidable foes – ranging from China to the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank.  And all signs suggest that the war to regulate commerce on the Internet has only just begun.

Part I:  Early Attempts at Regulation

Having been accused of aiding and abetting trademark infringement by jewelry icon Tiffany & Co., online auction site eBay successfully convinced the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that it was not vicariously responsible for the multitude of counterfeit Tiffany products that were being sold through its popular trading platform. Rather, the appeals court held that the onus lies on the brand owner to diligently police its marks against counterfeit items sold by eBay users.

After the eBay decision, brand owners’ focus began to shift away from eBay when seeking to stop the online sale of counterfeits, and began to focus more on websites and China-based “trading boards,” such as Alibaba, TradeTang, DHGate, Taobao and others. “Posting on these heavily-trafficked wholesale sites, a manufacturer located in mainland China or Hong Kong can make and sell hundreds of thousands of counterfeit products per week, and ship to distributors located all around the globe.  His sales make ten thousand listings for counterfeit goods on eBay seem like small potatoes in comparison,” says one source familiar with the Chinese trading sites.

As China’s online infrastructure expands, so too does the number of trade board users.  According to estimates, China now has 1 billion mobile phone subscriptions, but only about 14 percent of these already operate on China’s faster 3G networks, a number that will only increase as that nation invests in cellular infrastructure.

As a result, international trading boards run by Chinese Internet giant Alibaba Group are gearing up for an explosion in the number of consumers using their smartphones and tablet devices to buy products online in the next two years.  For example, Taobao Marketplace and Taobao Mall, which between them account for more than 400 million users, are already reporting a rapid sales growth by means of their iPad and iPhone applications.

Part II:  The Empire Strikes Back

The Chinese government has not sat idly by while its growing online companies are accused of harboring online counterfeiters.  When the U.S. Trade Representative recently listed Alibaba’s Taobao online retail site as one of the world’s most notorious markets in a U.S. government report, China’s Ministry of Commerce shot back with a vigorous attack:  “Since there is no conclusive evidence, there is no detailed analysis, this is very irresponsible and not objective,” said China Ministry of Commerce spokesman Shen Danyang.  “China believes the U.S. should … make fair assessments and avoid creating unnecessary negative effects for Chinese companies.”

In response to the mounting pressure, Alibaba hired high-powered lobbying firm Duberstein Group, and former Bush White House trade official James Mendenhall, now a partner at First Lady Michelle Obama’s former law firm Sidley & Austin, to represent Alibaba Group in talks with the U.S. government and industry groups.  These measures have already improved Alibaba Group’s image.

But an increase in the number of recently filed court cases suggests that the number of Chinese merchants that are actively trafficking in counterfeit goods on the Internet, through the use of “rogue websites” operating under spurious domain names incorporating trademarked brands, continues to skyrocket.

According to brand owners, “rogue websites” are unauthorized e-commerce sites that mimic legitimate channels of trade.  Consumers are lured to these sophisticated and well-designed websites that are replete with corporate advertising, credit card logos, and other indicia of legitimacy.  These sites often call themselves “sale outlets” in order to suggest that their merchandise is authentic.

However, such sites are actually devoted to illicit conduct, typically trafficking in counterfeit products, or offering illegal downloads of pirated music, movies or software.  These sites are also sometimes also used to steal consumers’ identities when the consumer reveals credit card information to make purchases, according to experts.  The U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes that studies demonstrate the dire implications and consequences of rogue websites distributing their illicit goods and illegal content to consumers.

Part III:  The Long Arm of the United States

In response to the growing problem, U.S. law enforcement and brands alike have taken concerted legal action against thousands of such sites in recent months. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent international raids on MegaUpload sent the signal that the federal government does not perceive online digital piracy of movies and music to be a victimless crime.

But following through to see these complex cases to completion is another story.  First, online distribution networks are fluid, and the common ownership and control of rogue websites is very difficult to trace and track down, requiring constant monitoring.  For example, forensic investigators using advanced data-mining software programs such as RogueFinder are able to link dozens — even hundreds — of seemingly unrelated domain names and websites.  This careful research can thereby lay the foundation to properly sue the anonymous entities operating a vast number of infringing websites, but also illustrates the enormous challenge of monitoring online counterfeiting networks that not only grow exponentially but are also in a constant state of flux.

Using this type of data, federal courts in New York, Florida and Nevada have ordered thousands of domain names and corresponding websites to be taken down, and handed over to intellectual property owners.  But Internet counterfeiters can simply shift the infringing content to new websites with new domain names only days later, brazenly hawking the same counterfeit products in open violation of court orders.

Second, no longer relegated to dimly lit basements and backrooms in factories, some accused infringers are now organized--and well represented.  MegaUpload’s founders have showed up in federal court in Virginia represented by mega-firms Hogan Lovells, Squire Sanders, Sidley Austin, and most recently, Quinn Emanuel. 

And their high-priced legal representation has paid off, so far.  The Quinn Emanuel lawyers have already raised questions about the procedural aspects of the Justice Department’s MegaUpload seizures, and have cast serious doubt on whether New Zealand’s arrest warrants will even stick, undoubtedly giving Justice Department lawyers heartburn.  “I frankly don't know that we are ever going to have a trial in this matter,” District Judge Liam O’Grady said to a Justice Department prosecutor at a recent hearing in the case.

Part IV:  "Follow the Money"

Law enforcement authorities have realized the critical importance of regulating online payment processing—which is essential to Internet counterfeiters’ business model—but have found it equally challenging to monitor and seize cash flows associated with the purchase of counterfeit goods online.

In April 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized more than $896,000, plus the domain names of seven websites accused of selling counterfeit sports apparel. Aggressively using anti-money laundering statutes in conjunction with the PATRIOT Act’s specific provisions giving the federal government jurisdiction over “Interbank” accounts, the Justice Department was able to use warrants to allow the U.S. to seize $826,883 that had been transferred from PayPal accounts to Interbank accounts held by Chinese banks in the U.S.

However, while the PATRIOT Act gives Justice Department lawyers a powerful weapon, no such provision exists in U.S. law for intellectual property owners acting on their own in civil cases.  In fact, some intellectual property owners have been stymied in their ability to even gather insight into the finances of international counterfeiters from international banks operating in the U.S. itself.

In one such case, Tiffany & Co. alleged that major Chinese state-owned banks maintain bank accounts for counterfeiters in China that ship fake designer goods into the United States.  The three accused banks - Bank of China, China Merchants Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China - all have branches in New York City.  The luxury-goods maker had petitioned to have the Chinese banks freeze assets in accounts owned by the alleged counterfeiters and turn over information about the clients to their attorneys.

However, the banks’ lawyers pointed out that the Federal Reserve, which regulates New York-based branches of foreign banks, supports the notion of treating each branch as a “separate entity,” and the idea that New York branches of foreign banks cannot be used as conduits through which to export American laws abroad.  A lawyer for the New York Federal Reserve had presented an oral argument in a similar case involving offshore accounts, warning that a decision in favor of disclosure could spark “a global asset hunt” in the New York court system, according to a court transcript.

In fact, an amicus brief the Federal Reserve Bank filed became part of a series of arguments in the Tiffany case that led District Judge Pauley to rule that Tiffany needed to seek information from the banks’ headquarters in China – and not in a New York courtroom.

However, just weeks after the Tiffany decision, another judge in the same courthouse, faced with essentially identical facts, held that luxury brand group Gucci America, Inc., was entitled to information held by Bank of China and other Chinese financial institutions, and that those banks were required to freeze the defendants’ assets. This matter is currently before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is now charged with resolving the contradictory rulings

It is clear that a simple legal solution to bringing the Internet in line with established laws and traditional norms of intellectual property ownership is simply not in the foreseeable future.   Beleaguered intellectual property owners, faced with such significant opposition, must both adapt their existing business models, and continue to lobby for the passage of more creative laws as well as aggressive application of existing laws.  However, doing so will likely place them in a protracted battle with political and commercial forces far more powerful than they may have ever bargained-for.

And that is just the beginning.