U.S. Government Snafu Shuts Down 84,000 Websites

Feb 17, 2011 9:00 AM PST
CYBERSPACE — The Department of Justice and Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) division erroneously shut down 84,000 websites and seized domains last week in what it believed to be a crackdown on child porn and counterfeit goods.

But the government failed to realize that one of the targeted domains belonged to FreeDNS provider’s mooo.com that hosted most of the innocent sites.

Only 10 of the 84 affected sites were reportedly on the original hit list.

FreeDNS immediately responded to the takedown and issued the following statement, "Last night on Friday February 11th at around 9:30 PM PST mooo.com (the most popular shared domain at afraid.org) was suspended at the registrar level. There is no ETA at this time. Due to the way propagation works it will take three days for a restoration to take effect. Freedns.afraid.org has never allowed this type of abuse of its DNS service. We are working to get the issue sorted as quickly as possible.’”

The affected operators had a visible notice placed on their sites that read, “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes that carry penalties for first time offenders of up to 30 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, forfeiture and restitution.”

ICE reportedly convinced a district court judge to sign a seizure warrant and then contacted the domain registries to point the domains in question to a server that hosts the warning message. But a snafu caused the seizure of the DNS service that resulted in the massive shutdown.

Although the error was mostly corrected by Sunday, many of the warning labels continued to appear in search results and the damaging accusations have caused serious concern to site owners.

One owner said, “You can rest assured that I have not and would never be found to be trafficking in such distasteful and horrific content. A little sleuthing shows that the whole of the mooo.com TLD is impacted. At first, the legitimacy of the alerts seems to be questionable — after all, what reputable agency would display their warning in a fancily formatted image referenced by the underlying HTML? I wouldn’t expect to see that.”

Despite the huge snafu, the Department of Homeland Security issued a press release lauding its efforts for taking down 10 domains and making no mention of the mistake.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano said, “Each year, far too many children fall prey to sexual predators and all too often, these heinous acts are recorded in photos and on video and released on the Internet.”

She added, “DHS is committed to working with our law enforcement partners to shut down websites that promote child pornography to protect these children from further victimization.”

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