The US agency behind the high-profile seizures of domain names that resolve to websites carrying IP-infringing content has said that the success of the operation was a great surprise.

“People told us that we will fail if we seize these domain names, and that we’ll look foolish,” said Erik Barnett, assistant deputy director of the US government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) team, which began conducting Operation In Our Sites last year. “People said [that the infringers] would come back. But the reality is they didn’t – that was surprising.”

Addressing the internet committee of ECTA, which opens its annual conference in Stockholm today, Barnett outlined how the first phase of the operation seized nine domain names, each generating thousands of dollars per month in advertising revenue by providing content that infringed trademark rights and copyright. According to Barnett, two of those nine came back, and then one vanished again. “But seven just stopped altogether. We worked with lots of analysts, who were looking at several hundred sites and they told us that after the first round of the operation, 81 other sites voluntary stopped offering illegal content.”

Barnett described the effect of the operation on infringers as “the scare factor”. The next phase famously swooped in on infringers on what the Americans call ‘cyber Monday’, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend when many people buy gifts online. In this second round, ICE identified 77 sites selling infringing goods, each registered and operated from China. “We sent information to the Chinese Ministry of Public Security with the relevant information, but we have still not heard back,” said Barnett. “So the only option we have to protect IP holders is to seize the domain name.” All 77 were seized; around half reappeared elsewhere.

Barnett explained another eyebrow-raising statistic: that the page to which all the seized domain names now resolve has received well over 50 million hits. The real number could be much greater than 50 million, because ICE stopped counting the hits 90 days after each seizure. “The notice says that you can challenge the seizure, but no one has yet,” he added.

Barnett’s address was bullish. His agency is clearly very happy with the way this operation has unfolded, to the extent that he is here in Europe to try to encourage other governments to consider similar programmes. Sources report that there are provisions within EU and national legislation that could be used to obtain court orders for domain name seizure, mirroring ICE’s US strategy. And ICE plans to build on this successful initiative: just yesterday, the agency announced a recruitment drive to find additional special agents.

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