The war against internet piracy has stepped up a notch.
The launch of “Operation in Our Sites,” a new U.S. initiative aimed at internet counterfeiting and piracy, was announced on Wednesday. But what makes this initiative different is that it partners law-enforcement officials with representatives of the entertainment industry. It also tangible evidence of the Obama administration's promises to crack down on piracy.
Hollywood will provide technological advice and support, as well as helping identify the websites that provide illegal downloads.
"American business is under attack from counterfeiters and pirates," Immigration and Customs’ Assistant Secretary John Morton said at the press conference. "Internet crooks threaten the U.S. economy on a grand scale."
To prove the point, the announcement was made at the Disney Studios in Burbank, where Morton was joined by senior representatives from major movie studios, such as Walt Disney Studios President Alan Bergman and Paramount Chief Operating Officer Frederick Huntsberry, entertainment unions and the Motion Picture Association of America.
The message stressed by all the press conferences participants was that piracy was rising and threatened the livelihoods of everyone from those in corporate boardrooms to below the line workers by depriving the U.S. economy of some $20.5 billion annually in lost output.
The initiative's first action was to seize nine domain names of websites that were offering first-run movies, often within hours of their theatrical release. Among the sites targetted by the inaugural investigation were TVShack.net, Movies-links.tv, Filespump.com, Now-movies.com, PlanetMoviez.com, PirateCity.org and zml.com, NinjaVideo.net, and NinjaThis.net. Officials said Wednesday that those sites had attracted 6.7 million visitors in a single month.
Officials said that those sites are no longer operating and that visitors will now encounter a banner announcing that law enforcement agencies has shut down the sites because they were trafficking in illegal downloads (as of 1:00 p.m. PST, however, some of these sites still appeared to be operational).
"I don't think that these moves stopped internet piracy in a day, but this is going to be a sustained effort," Morton said.
Law enforcement officials said that these investigations were targeted specifically at the people running bit torrent sites, but that indicated that in the future they may widen their gaze to include individuals who download films and television shows illegally. While the nine sites shut down on Wednesday were all operating in the United States, Morton said that the agencies involved in the new initiative had jurisdiction in 44 countries.
"This battle won't be won in the United States. We'll have to wage it globally," Morton said.
Seven of those sites were targeted by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. In addition, agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations seized assets associated with these sites from 15 bank, Paypal, investment and advertising accounts. It also executed four residential search warrants in several states.
Officials would not say if any arrests had been made, but said that site operators could face jail time.
Working undercover, investigators downloaded various newly released movies from the websites and their affiliates.
Over the course of the investigation, agents observed links to more than 200 movies and more than 300 television programs on NinjaVideo.
Asked about the potential problems that might arise with partnering so heavily with industry, Morton said, "This is a great national industry. When industry is victimized, they should be treated no differently than an individual who is victimized on the corner of Fourth and Main."
The new initiative also represents a more comprehensive effort to prosecute downloaders or pirates, rather than the piecemeal approach to prosecution that already exists.
For instance, with regards to the seizures and closures announced Wednesday, the class of sites identified were all link sites.
The initiative makes good on a promise made by Vice President Joe Biden earlier this month. On June 22, Biden unveiled the White House's strategic plan to increase intellectual-property enforcement. “Piracy is theft,” he said at the time. “It is smash-and-grab, no different from smashing a window at Tiffany.”
Members of the Hollywood community, naturally, applauded the new effort in statements on Wednesday.
“Content theft online has become increasingly ubiquitous as technology and software improve and access to the Internet increases,” said Mike Robinson, chief of operations, content protection for the MPAA. “We are committed to working with law enforcement to get the illegal choices out of the marketplace and instead focus on continuing to offer more innovative and flexible legal options to consumers to enjoy the movies and TV shows that we all love.”
“We are facing a dramatic rise in the number of foreign and domestic websites that are in the business of making films and television shows -- created by our members -- available for illegal download or streaming,” said Kathy Garmezy, associate executive director of government and international affairs for the Directors Guild of America. “If left unchecked, this illegal activity threatens the very ability of filmmakers to both earn a living and create the content that is enjoyed by billions around the world.”
“We commend the action of ICE and the IPR Center in striking a significant blow against those who seek to profit from the copyrighted, intellectual property of others,” said Matthew D. Loeb, president of theInternational Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. “The stealing of digital content is not a victimless crime; it’s also the theft of tens of thousands of American jobs.”