Does the federal government have the right to seize a domain name without notice? With growing frequency, the feds have seized the domain names of thousands of websites for alleged criminal wrongdoing. The latest example is the seizure earlier this week of 67 website domain names for the alleged illegal sale and distribution of counterfeit and prescription drugs.
There still is little information publicly available on the recent seizure. The Justice Department issued a short new release with a statement from U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles, in which he noted,
It’s important for consumers to understand the significant risks involved in purchasing pharmaceutical drugs from these websites. The generic versions of these prescription drugs are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and cannot be distributed in the United States legally. To be safe and effective, prescription drugs must be taken under the care and supervision of appropriate health care professionals; not purchased off the internet from unknown and unregulated foreign sources.
Whether or not the sites facilitated the alleged criminal behavior remains to be decided by a judicial proceeding (if the case ever gets to that point). Federal agents can obtain a seizure order based merely upon probable cause set forth in an affidavit. That’s a relatively low bar considering the consequences of domain name seizures.
The only recourse for the sites at this point is to file a petition with a federal court to contest the forfeiture. Contesting a forfeiture is an uphill—and oftentimes protracted—battle. In the meantime the businesses operating through those domain names are effectively shut down, if the seized websites were their main channel of business. Once the feds carry out a domain name seizure, the “offending” sites will show a seizure banner notifying any visitors that the domain name has been seized by federal authorities for violations of federal laws. No business can be done on the site and the chances of visitors returning are slim.
So how is it okay for a domain name to be seized based on the allegation of a crime, before proper notice and hearing? The feds are taking advantage of a process known as an in rem proceeding, whereby they can file suit against the offending property itself for its alleged role in facilitating criminal conduct. Typically in rem proceedings are filed against tangible assets like a car involved in a drug deal or a bank account used to funnel illegal funds. But in recent years, in rem proceedings have been used by both state and federal agencies against domain names in order to crack down on alleged criminal behavior carried out through the websites. Examples include (1) the Justice Department’s “In Our Sites” operation in which it seized the domain names of thousands of sites accused of violating U.S. copyright laws and (2) the state of Kentucky’s attempt to seize 141 domain names of online poker sites.
Despite the increasing use of pretrial domain name seizures, the legality is still hotly debated by civil liberties groups, free market advocates, and international organizations. These groups raise constitutional concerns, such as due process and restraint on free speech, as well as jurisdictional concerns, such as federal or state authority to reach domain names owned by foreign individuals or entities. The biggest issue is that an in rem proceeding is inappropriate against domain names because a domain name is not property – it is a contractual right that, as such, should not be subject to seizure. We will discuss these concerns in more detail in a coming post once we learn more about the Justice Department’s recent actions against the 67 pharmaceutical domain names.
A November 2013 ruling from the United States District Court in a bankruptcy case may create an obstacle for a tactic increasingly popular among federal prosecutors – the seizure of a defendant company’s domain name.
The statutes permitting civil and criminal forfeiture in U.S. District Courts – Title 18, United States Code Sections 981 and 983, respectively – both authorize seizure of “property.” In a number of prominent (and not so prominent) cases, federal prosecutors have seized a defendant company’s domain name, which may shut down the company’s operations during the pendency of the case. But it does not appear that any Court has squarely considered, in a forfeiture context, whether a domain name constitutes “property” that may be seized and forfeited.
Alexandria Surveys, LLC v. Alexandria Consulting Group, LLC, Civil Action 1:13—CV-00891, Bankr. Case No. 10-11559-BFK, was not a forfeiture case, but it may have set the table for a forfeiture defendant to argue successfully that a domain name may not be seized. In Alexandria Surveys, the District Court reviewed a ruling in the Bankrupcty Court relating to the sale of certain assets previously belonging to the debtor. In the case, the debtor argued, among other things, that the sale of the debtor’s web address and telephone numbers was improper because neither were the “property” of the bankruptcy estate, and therefore neither could be sold by the trustee.
In considering the issue, the Court noted a split in the Circuits as to whether a telephone number constitutes property of an estate. Compare Rothman v. Pacific Tel. & Telegraph Co., 453 F.2d 848, 849-50 (9th Cir. 1971) (trustee lacks right to distribute telephone number as property of the estate); Slenderalla Sys.of Berkeley, Inc. v. Pacific Tel. & Telegraph Co., 286 F.2d 488, 490 (2d Cir. 1961) (same) withDarman v. Metropolitan Alarm Corp., 528 F.2d 908, 910 n.1 (1st Cir. 1976) (permitting trustee to distribute telephone number as property of estate); In re Fontainebleau Hotel Corp., 508 F.2d 1056, 1059 (5th Cir. 1975) (same).
The Court observed that, while the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has not yet addressed the issue, state law determines the contours of property interests assumed by the trustee. In that regard, the Court noted the Virginia Supreme Court’s relatively recent decision in Network Solutions, Inc. v. Umbro International, Inc., 529 S.E.2d 80 (Va. 2000), in which that court specifically held, in the context of a garnishment action, that a web address and telephone number could not be garnished by a judgment creditor because the debtor lacked a property interest in them. 529 S.E.2d at 86-87.The court held that a domain name registrant acquires the contractual right to use a unique domain name for a specified period of time, and that the domain name is not property, but rather, “the product of a contract for services.” Id. Without diminishing the importance and significance of web addresses and domain names, the Alexandria Surveys court followed the holding in Network Solutions that they did not constitute “property.”
While Alexandria Surveys did not deal specifically with the law of forfeiture, the holding that domain names do not constitute property has significant implications for civil and criminal forfeiture cases. The case is not binding on other courts, but given the paucity of precedent characterizing domain names, this analysis may be viewed as instructive by courts considering claimants’ and defendants’ challenges to domain name seizures. And a shift in the law that did not permit those seizures would deprive the government of a significant piece of leverage that it now wields in many cases.