Congresswoman: Websites Mistakenly Seized By ICE Should Sue Government

Speaking at a Silicon Valley legal conference this morning, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said that the recent website shutdown by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement COICA are way out of line, and an abuse of due process. In particular, she pointed out a recent episode during which, while pursuing a handful of websites allegedly connected to child pornography, ICE agents accidentally shut down more than 80,000 unrelated websites and tarnished them with child porn-related accusations.

The ICE operations are taking down websites without due process, and “apparently without any regard to the First Amendment or fair use,” said Lofgren. Most of the ICE’s recent seizures have been over alleged copyright and trademark violations, not child porn. But the owners of the 80,000 websites that were slandered with the child porn accusation should consider suing the federal government, she added. She is the second politician on Capitol Hill to express concerns about ICE’s behavior, following earlier comments by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)

Asked by an audience member what could be done about the ICE seizures, Lofgren said at this point she’s still struggling to educate her colleagues in Congress about the issue. “There aren’t very many people who follow this,” she said. “I don’t think many of my colleagues knew about the domain name approach.” Lofgren herself was surprised that the agency charged with enforcing immigration laws would have any involvement with shutting down websites, she added.

Her comments follow up on some pointed questions that Lofgren put to Obama administration’s intellectual property czar, Victoria Espinel, yesterday.

Lofgren, whose district includes parts of San Jose and Silicon Valley, also said she’s concerned about a proposed law in the Senate, called COICA, that will allow for more elaborate website takedowns that will involve ISPs directly. “Engineers are telling me it will have a very adverse impact on the internet itself, and has no protection for free speech, fair use, or technology and innovation.” While acknowledging that it’s important to fight online piracy, easy website takedowns are likely to produce collateral damage without really harming pirates, she said. “It’s not going to do anything about pirate sites because they’ll pop up somewhere else.”

Lofgren’s comments were part of an event focusing on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a fundamental piece of internet legislation that protects websites from liability for their users’ activities. Lofgren, who was interviewed by CNET’s Declan McCullough, spent a few minutes reminiscing about the political environment in which that law and other pieces of internet and copyright legislation have been considered. She lamented that the voices of tech companies in her district are often absent in Washington debates on issues like the COICA bill. “The FBI, Hollywood, and the recording industry are always present, and the technology world often is not,” said Lofgren.