Federal police have adopted a novel crime-fighting tactic: seizing control of the domain names of Web sites it
claims are engaging in illegal activity.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday that the domain names for several Web sites allegedly set up to sell illegal "drug paraphernalia" would be pointed at servers located at the Drug Enforcement Administration. A federal judge in Pittsburgh granted the U.S. Department of Justice permission to do so until a trial can take place, the government said.
Wednesday afternoon, the DOJ said it had taken over the iSoNews.com domain, whose owner pleaded guilty to felony copyright crimes under the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). David Rocci, 22, pleaded guilty in December to using his site to sell "mod" chips that let Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation owners modify their devices so they can use them to play illegally copied games, or "warez."
Rocci "attempted to profit by marketing circumvention devices to (the gaming) community knowing they would be used to play pirated games," Michael Chertoff, the assistant attorney general for the DOJ's criminal division, said in a statement. "He thought that there were no risks associated with his actions. He was wrong, and everyone engaged in the warez scene should take note."
As previously reported, manufacturers like Sony have waged an international fight against mod chips, with Canadian police targeting an Ottawa man last July for selling mod chips for the PlayStation 2. A Hong Kong video game retailer, Lik-Sang, has been sued by game console makers Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.
But this case appears to have been the first such prosecution in the United States under the DMCA, a 1998 copyright law that generally restricts anyone from circumventing copy protection technologies or distributing software or hardware designed for circumvention purposes. The DMCA says commercial violators "shall be fined not more than $500,000 or imprisoned for not more than 5 years, or both, for the first offense."
The Justice Department did not release a copy of Rocci's plea agreement, but said that he will be sentenced on March 7 before U.S. District Judge James Cacheris in Alexandria, Va.
"Rocci used his Web site as the exclusive means to advertise and market the sale of mod chips to individuals in the online warez community," the government said in a statement. "The iSoNews Web site was dedicated to providing information about copyright infringement and piracy, and included pages with news on the illegal warez scene, discussion forums on piracy, and up-to-date listings of all of the latest pirated products that were available. The site had over 100,000 registered users and claimed to receive over 140,000 hits each day."
Rocci allegedly sold the Enigmah chip, which cost between $45 and $60 apiece. Like other mod chips, the Enigmah defeats security systems in the Xbox, allowing owners to play legally and illegally copied games, run unauthorized software and play games intended for other geographic regions.
Some hackers have seized on mod chips as a vehicle to run Linux on the Xbox. Advocates argue such legitimate, nonpiracy uses of mod chips disqualify them as "circumvention devices" under the DMCA.
Visitors to iSoNews.com on Wednesday saw a notice saying: "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."
But the Web site is still online and accessible via means other than the domain name. iSoNews.com regulars have resorted to using the site's numeric IP address--22.214.171.124--and are continuing to discuss the case. "Thanks to everyone for your support in this site, we all appreciate it and will continue to do so," one person wrote.
In October 2000, Sega had threatened iSoNews.com with a cease-and-desist letter, but Jennifer Granick, the attorney representing the site at the time, said Wednesday that no suit had been filed.
An attorney for Rocci could not be reached Wednesday.
Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center said Monday that redirecting Web visitors to Justice Department sites becomes a kind of "electronic flypaper" that raises novel legal questions.
At least four drug-related Web sites targeted by the Justice Department--PipesForYou.com, ColorChangingGlass.com, 420now.com, and OmniLounge.com--now sport government messages. The text says: "By application of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, the Web site you are attempting to visit has been restrained by the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania."
Federal law prohibits selling any product that is "primarily intended" for use with illegal drugs, including water pipes, roach clips and small spoons used with cocaine.