The Obama administration's aggressive crackdown on websites accused of child pornography crimes, copyright infringement or selling counterfeit goods is being challenged by an online activist group that says federal authorities "overreached" by arresting someone for "nothing more than linking to other websites."
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested Bryan McCarthy, 32, earlier this month and charged him with one count of copyright infringement.
Since December 2005, McCarthy operated channelsurfing.net out of his home in Texas until federal authorities seized it last month as part of an ongoing investigation into websites that illegally streamed copyrighted sporting telecasts and pay-per-view events.
Federal authorities say that McCarthy made more than $90,000 in profits from online merchants who paid him to advertise on the website that linked to telecasts of NFL, NBA, NHL, WWE and UFC sporting events. The site has received more than 1.3 million hits since it was seized, federal authorities said.
McCarthy faces up to five years in prison.
"Brian McCarthy allegedly sought to profit by intercepting and then streaming live sporting events, hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet to make a quick buck through what is little more than high-tech thievery," Preet Bhara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York said in a statement at the time of McCarthy's arrest.
"This arrest sends a clear message that this office, working with its partners at [DHS], will vigorously protect valuable intellectual property rights through arrest and domain name seizures," he said.
Aaron Swartz, executive director of Demand Progress, called McCarthy's arrest "shocking" and "unprecedented" that should alarm video-linking sites or anyone who sends e-mails or instant messages with links to YouTube videos.
"We think that if Bryan McCarthy can be arrested for linking to copyrighted material, then everyone can be arrested for linking to YouTube videos and copyrighted material," he told FoxNews.com. "And that's no way to police the Internet."
McCarthy marveled that the complaint does not even allege that McCarthy made a copy of anything. "This is the first time the government has gone after anyone for just linking to other websites," he said.
DHS and ICE deferred questions from FoxNews.com to Bhara's office, which declined to comment. An affidavit unsealed when McCarthy's website along with nine others were seized last month estimated that sports leagues and broadcasters lose millions of dollars each year from the illegal distribution of copyrighted, live sporting events on the Internet.
"Such piracy threatens the investment that broadcasters and digital media companies are willing to make to distribute live content," according to the affidavit. "In addition, this illegal activity impedes the leagues' ability to sell game tickets and secure local television and radio carriage, and the value of advertising revenue generated by broadcast, radio and new media partners."
"Sports fans are also victims, as the costs expended by sports leagues in an effort to address online piracy are passed on to fans when they purchase tickets or subscribe to sports networks," the affidavit says.
But Swartz is more concerned about the impact this arrest could have on the Internet. He is circulating a petition entitled, "Share a YouTube Video? Go to Jail!" that calls on ICE Director Jon Morton to immediately drop the charges against McCarthy.
"This is another shocking overreach by the department of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – a steamship-era department that's proving once again it doesn't understand the Internet," the petition reads. "We need to push back – and fast – before they try to lock up all Americans."
Swartz said 50,000 people have already signed the petition since he began circulating it after McCarthy's arrest. He plans to keep circulating it for another week or two before delivering it to Morton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.