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Feds Seize Websites Suspected of Online Piracy

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Reuters journalist Doug Palmer purchases a fake LVMH handbag from a China-based online website, from the Reuters office in Washington, September 10, 2010. (Reuters)

The U.S. government is shutting down websites suspected of copyright infringement or selling counterfeit goods as Congress debates a bill that would give feds more authority to do so.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency within the Homeland Security Department, has seized more than 70 websites in recent days, according to the Wall Street Journal, and posted a notice saying that the domain name has been seized by ICE through court-ordered warrants. The notice also states penalties for willful copyright infringement and trafficking in counterfeit goods.

Neither ICE nor Homeland Security responded to messages seeking comment. An ICE spokeswoman confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that the agency executed court-ordered seizure warrants against a number of domain names but declined additional comment.

"As this is an ongoing investigation, there are no additional details available at this time," she told the newspaper.

Online publications, including TorrentFreak, first reported the seizures which began on Thursday when ICE agents raided facilities operated by a hip hop file-sharing site called RapGodFathers. Other seized sites that share music or sell goods include torrent-finder.com, timberlandlike.com, dvdsetsonline.com and handbagspop.com.

Some of the siteowners have reportedly complained that their domain names were seized without any notice or warning.

The seizures come as Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., vows to block an online copyright enforcement bill that was unanimously approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The bill would allow the Justice Department to seek expedited court orders blacklisting websites suspected of piracy.

Supporters say the bill will help put an end to websites, some of them foreign-owned, that steal intellectual property, which is estimated to cost the U.S. economy more than $100 billion every year and results in the loss of thousands of jobs.

"The Internet serves as the glue of international commerce in today's global economy. But it's also been turned into a tool for online thieves to sell counterfeit and pirated goods, making hundreds of millions of dollars off of stolen American intellectual property," Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in a written statement.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the committee, said if "rogue websites" existed in the physical world, the store would be shuttered immediately and the proprietors would be arrested.

"We cannot excuse the behavior because it happens online and the owners operate overseas," he said in a written statement. "The Internet needs to be free – not lawless."

But Wyden says the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, or COICA, is excessive.

"Deploying this statue to combat online copyright infringement seems almost like using a bunker-busting cluster bomb, when what you need is a precision-guided missile," he said during a hearing on digital trade. "If you don't think this thing through carefully, the collateral damage would be American innovation, American jobs, and a secure Internet."

Wyden's opposition dooms the bill in this Congress and would force the next Congress convening in January to start from scratch.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights group, also opposes the bill, saying the collateral damage would be "enormous." The group said if the bill had passed a few years ago, YouTube might not exist today.

"There are already laws and procedures in place for taking down sites that violate the law," the group said in a statement on its website. "This act would allow the attorney general to censor sites even when no court has found they have infringed copyright or any other law."