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The United States government is currently operating under the assumption — and practice — that it can seize top-level domains ending in .com, .net and .org even if the site is based in another country.

That’s according to Wired‘s David Kravets, who reports that United States law enforcement officials have shut down hundreds of websites to date, setting the precedent that all websites with those top-level domains is “firmly within reach of American courts regardless of where the owners are located — possibly forever.”

Top-level domains, .com, .net and .org, are handled by the publicly-traded corporation Verisign, due to that company’s acquisition of Network Solutions, the entity contracted to take care of those types of domains by the Commerce Department in 1999.

Controversy over the legal and desirable jurisdiction of the internet has come to the fore in a variety of recent, high-profile incidents. File locker service Megaupload was shut down in an international raid in February, with support from prosecutors in Virginia, where some of the company’s servers were physically located. And two domestic items of legislation, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PROTECT IP), which would have let law enforcement agencies to block access to entire domains that hosted content that infringed on copyright, met with intense backlash from innovators and free speech advocates.

“But at the end of the day what has happened is that US law (in fact, Maryland state law) as been imposed on a .com domain operating outside the USA, which is the subtext we were very worried about when we commented on SOPA,” wrote EasyDNS CEO Mark Jeftovic after Canadian sports betting company Bodog.com was shut down by a federal warrant.

Even though SOPA is currently in limbo, the reality that US law can now be asserted over all domains registered under .com, .net, org, .biz and maybe .info.

In 2010, online rights watchdog organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned of dangers to the First Amendment posed by placing segments of internet infrastructure under the control of corporations, drawing on contemporary controversy surrounding WikiLeaks.

“Importantly, the government itself can’t take official action to silence WikiLeaks’ ongoing publications, wrote Rainey Reitman and Marcia Hofmann. “But a web hosting company isn’t the government. It’s a private actor and it certainly can choose what to publish and what not to publish. Indeed, Amazon has its own First Amendment right to do so. That makes it all the more unfortunate that Amazon caved to unofficial government pressure to squelch core political speech. ”

 

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