As a general rule, the US government doesn’t prohibit access to foreign websites, the way China bans access to Facebook. But a federal court in New York is making an exception.
In an extraordinary ruling that could give the entertainment industry a new weapon against online piracy, a US District Court in New York has ordered every Internet service provider in the US to block access to an Israeli website that illegally streams copyrighted movies.
Nobody disputes that the website, Israel.TV, is violating US copyright law. The company itself didn’t even show up in court to defend itself. So federal judge Katherine Polk Failla slapped it with a $7.6 million penalty. But can Failla order US telecom companies to stop their customers from logging onto 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 ban access to The Pirate Bay, a site that’s famous for hosting pirated movies and music. But despite its flouting of US copyright law, The Pirate Bay remains accessible in the US.
Eleven years ago, the US Congress tried to pass a law that would have allowed courts to ban websites for copyright violations. But the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, met with fierce opposition from the big Internet companies, as well as many users who feared the law might be used by the government to censor controversial speech. In the end, the 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 US 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 that will be expected to comply with the order, and she says that 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, was active in the fight against SOPA. McSherry said that Failla has gone too far. “I don’t think the court has the authority to issue this order,” she said. “It’s not even clear from this order what the basis is, legally.”
McSherry noted that the court order applies to far more than ISPs. US companies that provide a variety of online support services must also stop doing business with Israel.TV. These include website hosting companies, domain name vendors, advertising companies, and payment processors such as PayPal.
“This order is far broader than anything I’ve ever seen,” McSherry said. “It’s worse than what was proposed under SOPA.” She predicted that Failla’s order would be shot down on appeal, if any of the affected companies choose to challenge it.
But it’s unclear 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 has the authority to issue such a broad injunction. But Castro favors enacting a law that would leave no doubt.
“Congress should pass a law to permit copyright holders to quickly shut down sites that are blatantly engaging in online piracy,” said Castro, whose organization gets financial backing from Internet service providers like Comcast and major copyright holders like the Walt Disney Company.