In a move that has alarmed free speech advocates, the U.S. Justice Department this week seized a news Web site containing information on pirated software and hardware, turning it into a government-run site containing warnings about software piracy and links to antipiracy investigations.
The seizure of iSONews.com was part of a plea agreement with the government by David Rocci, also known as "krazy8," who pleaded guilty in December to conspiring to import, market and sell modified computer chips for Microsoft's Xbox, according to a statement released by the Justice Department.
Rocci helped run the site, which provided information about, but not access to, pirated computer software and hardware devices, called "mods," that can circumvent copyright protections in game consoles such as Xbox and Sony' s Playstation 2.
Isonews.com also offered online discussion groups for individuals interested in the "mod" scene.
On Thursday, visitors to the www.iSONews.com domain were instead greeted by a low-tech Web page displaying the logos of both the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the U.S. Customs Service.
The Web page said, in part, "The isonews is now the property of the United States government. The domain and web site were surrendered to U.S. law enforcement pursuant to a federal prosecution and felony plea agreement for conspiracy to violate criminal copyright laws."
Links to a DOJ press release regarding the seizure and to a government site with information on federal antipiracy investigations were also provided.
While requiring a criminal to forfeit the instruments used in a crime is common in plea agreements, it has not been common for the government to take over whole domains and use them to relay messages.
A government official close to the investigation said that the iSONews.com forfeiture is not the first time the government has taken such steps, and that similar seizures are likely to become more frequent.
"I think you're going to see more of it. If we feel that forfeiting the Web site is appropriate we're going to do that," the source said.
That said, the government does not have any guidelines for when Web site forfeiture is recommended and when it isn't.
"We will have to look at each case to make that determination," the source said.
Despite the government's seizure of the iSONews.com domain, the iSONews.com site was still accessible Thursday afternoon at the site's IP (Internet protocol) address, http://22.214.171.124. Most of the site's features, including online discussion groups, continued to function.
It is not clear whether the government is administering that site, or whether it has also seized the content on the iSONews.com Web servers.
"This raises some very interesting privacy issues," said David Sobel, general counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
"If the government has the logs to this site, is an unsuspecting person who thinks they're going to this site because it has useful information having their IP address captured by the government as part of a criminal investigation," Sobel said.
The source close to the investigation would not comment on the fact that iSONews.com's site is still accessible or whether iSONews.com content was being used by the government to fuel other investigations.
"I'm not comfortable in commenting on that. It's part of our investigative technique," the source said.
Content on the iSONews.com site indicates that Rocci and the site's other managers tried to steer clear of becoming a site associated with creating or obtaining copies of pirated software or "iso-images."
"Lets get some things straight. The staff here at iSONEWS.COM will in no way help anyone to obtain these iso-images reported here. iSONEWS.COM sole purpose is reporting and giving you the latest news from the ISO scene, not to teach or help people to gain access to illegal software in any form," says a message on the site.
Users inquiring about where to find pirated software or tools would be banned from the site, according to the statement.
Nevertheless, the government contends that Rocci used iSONews.com as "the exclusive means to advertise and market the sale of mod chips to individuals in the online warez community," and made it a condition of Rocci's plea agreement that the iSONews.com site would be surrendered to the government, the DOJ statement said.
It was not clear whether Rocci was merely advertising his product on iSONews.com or whether the Web site itself was a vehicle for selling the mod chips. However, such distinctions were irrelevant, because Rocci owned and managed the site and its content.
"I don't think the distinction is well-founded. It was not an arms-length transaction here," the government source said.
While the government's seizure was, in theory, "voluntary" because it was part of a plea agreement, EPIC's Sobel sees links between the DOJ's move with iSONews.com and the recent effort by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to have visitors diverted to that agency's site when they attempt to access certain Web sites selling drug paraphernalia.
"This is a new law enforcement tactic, trying to seize Web sites in a variety of ways, either under duress or by court order," Sobel said. "It raises interesting issues about compelled speech, forcing somebody to substitute their content for government sanctioned content, that I don't think anybody has thought through."
The government is sensitive to concerns regarding the seizure of news and discussion-related Web sites relative to the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment right of free speech. However, it is unlikely that the government would seek to shut down a site that just offered information on piracy, according to the source.
"I don't think anyone is maintaining that it's illegal to access a Web site with information pertaining to (software piracy). What clearly is illegal is selling and trafficking mod chips. Discussing them is not illegal," the source said.