Generally, the US government does not ban access to foreign websites, like China bans access to Facebook. But a federal court in New York makes an exception.
In an extraordinary decision that could give the entertainment industry a new weapon against online piracy, a US District Court in New York has ordered all internet service providers in the United States to block access to a Israeli website that illegally streams copyrighted movies.
No one disputes that the website, Israel.TV, violates US copyright law. The company itself didn’t even show up in court to defend itself. Federal Judge Katherine Polk Failla therefore fined him $7.6 million. But can Failla order US telecommunications companies to block their customers from connecting to the site?
Such actions are commonplace in other countries, and not just those run by authoritarian regimes like China. Even Western countries with strong free speech protections routinely block websites that host illegal content. For example, some European countries prohibit access to The Pirate Bay, a site famous for hosting pirated movies and music. But despite its disregard for US copyright law, The Pirate Bay remains accessible in the United States.
Eleven years ago, the US Congress tried to pass a law that would have allowed the courts to ban websites for copyright infringement. But the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, has met with fierce opposition from big internet companies, as well as many users who feared the law could be used by the government to censor controversial speech. In the end, Bill died a quiet death.
But Failla believes that even without such a law on the books, she has the power to demand that Israel.TV be blocked by American companies that sell internet access to the public. This includes titans like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T, as well as dozens of smaller regional providers. Failla’s ruling includes a list of ISPs who will have to comply with the order and says the order applies to any others the court might have missed.
Corynne McSherry, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, has been active in the fight against SOPA. McSherry said Failla went too far. “I don’t think the court has the power to make that order,” she said. “It’s not even clear from this order what the basis is, legally.”
McSherry noted that the court order applies to much more than ISPs. American companies that provide a variety of online support services must also cease doing business with Israel.TV. These include website hosting companies, domain name providers, advertising companies and payment processors such as PayPal.
“This command is way larger than anything I’ve ever seen,” McSherry said. “It’s worse than what was offered under SOPA.” She predicted that Failla’s order would be overturned on appeal, should any of the companies involved choose to challenge it.
But we don’t know if that will happen. Comcast did not respond to a request for comment, while two other ISPs serving the Boston area, Verizon and Astound, declined to comment on the injunction.
Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, questioned whether the federal court had the power to issue such a broad injunction. But Castro is in favor of enacting a law that would leave no doubt.
“Congress should pass legislation allowing copyright holders to quickly shut down sites that blatantly engage in online piracy,” said Castro, whose organization has financial support from internet service providers like Comcast and major copyright holders like the Walt Disney Company.
Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.