The indictment of Canadian billionaire Calvin Ayre in the U.S. on illegal gambling charges this week is raising concerns among Internet experts that anyone who owns a .com domain could find themselves subject to U.S. law, even if their activities are entirely outside the United States.
Ayre is the founder and owner of Bodog, a sports gambling site that operates worldwide and, in the past, has been accused of "taunting and dodging" U.S. authorities.
Federal prosecutors in Maryland unsealed an indictment against Ayre and three other Canadians on Tuesday, alleging that Ayre and his partners were behind more than $100 million in illicit gambling winnings. Online gambling on sports is illegal under U.S. law, though it is legal in many other countries, including Canada.
None of the four people indicted have been arrested, as none of them are currently in the U.S. They face up to 25 years in prison.
Bodog.com was shut down Monday under a federal court order, and the page now redirects to a Homeland Security takedown notice. Other Bodog sites, such as Bodog.co.uk and Bodog.eu, continue to operate.
What has Internet freedom advocates worried is that Bodog.com was not registered in the United States, but rather in Canada, and the indictment against Ayre lists "the movement of funds outside the U.S." as a basis for the prosecution.
According to a report at the tech website EasyDNS, Bodog.com was registered through Vancouver-based DomainClip. However, all .com domains are ultimately managed through California-based Verisign, and it was this organization that was given a court order to shut down Bodog.com.
That raises the spectre of the United States extending its law enforcement to any organization whose online presence is in the .com domain. And many Internet activists are raising the spectre of individuals being charged in the U.S. for activities in other countries that aren’t crimes where they are located.
In Canada numerous organizations could be affected. For instance, all the major daily newspapers under the Canada.com brand -- including the National Post, Ottawa Citizen and Calgary Herald -- are on .com domains, as is the Toronto Star. The Tim Hortons website also has a .com address.
At the very least, the Ayre indictment shows those websites could be shut down on the order of a U.S. court.
“At the end of the day what has happened is that US law (in fact, Maryland state law) has been imposed on a .com domain operating outside the USA, ” Mark Jeftovic wrote at EasyDNS. “[T]he reality [is] that US law can now be asserted over all domains registered under .com, .net, org, .biz and maybe .info.”
In a statement released on his website this week, Calvin Ayre argued the U.S. prosecution is at odds with international law, and meant to be a publicity stunt.
“I see this as abuse of the U.S. criminal justice system for the commercial gain of large U.S. corporations,” he stated. "It is clear that the online gaming industry is legal under international law and in the case of these documents is it also clear that the rule of law was not allowed to slow down a rush to try to win the war of public opinion."
However, prosecutors will likely argue there were enough connections between Ayre’s business and the United States to justify prosecution in the U.S. even if the organization did not technically operate inside the country.
According to the Wall Street Journal, undercover law enforcement officials logged on to Bodog.com from inside the United States and were able to place bets on sporting events between 2006 and 2012. Bodog reportedly advertised on billboards, in magazines and on TV in the U.S. until a 2008 crackdown.
Bodog said in a statement this week that the company cancelled its agreement with the service provider who ran the Bodog redirect for U.S. visitors. But law enforcement officials alleged they were still able to access Bodog and place bets as recently as last month.
SOME OF THE WAYS WESTERN GOVERNMENTS ARE TRYING TO EXERT CONTROL OVER THE INTERNET
New Zealand snuck in a three-strikes law against file-sharers as part of an emergency earthquake relief bill. The law, which will see Internet account holders cut off from the web if they receive three copyright violation notices, went into effect last week. Critics have said it violates due process because it doesn't allow the accused to defend themselves. Because the law targets account holders and not actual file-sharers, New Zealand's Green Party says Parliament itself could have its Internet cut off if any of the thousands of people who use the government's Internet use it for illegal downloading. An hour after the law went into effect, a Reddit user claimed to be doing just that.
Australia's federal government has been working on and off on developing a mandatory Internet content filter since 2007. Although the government says it's meant to block child pornography, a list of blocked websites from a 2008 test run of the filter was leaked to Wikileaks. Among the blocked sites were "a Queensland dentist, a tuckshop convener and a kennel operator." Plans for what was known as the Great Firewall of Australia were put on hold in 2009, when the opposition Liberal Party made it impossible for the Labour Party to pass the legislation through the Senate. But a government strategy paper (PDF) suggests the idea could be back in front of legislators in 2013.
Canada's Conservative government introduced "lawful access" legislation in February, 2012, that critics say will severely undermine court oversight of police investigations and harm online privacy. The government plans to force ISPs to hand over subscriber data at the request of police, and without a warrant. Critics say the law will give the government "a free hand in spying on the private lives of law-abiding Canadians." The legislation was effectively put on hold when a public backlash turned out to be more than the government had expected. It will now likely be largely re-written before returning to Parliament.
At the behest of President Nicolas Sarkozy, France passed a three-strikes law against file-sharers in 2009, and, like the similar law in New Zealand, it has been criticized for passing judgment without proper judicial processes, and relying on copyright holders to determine who will lose Internet access. Last month France announced the first batch of Internet surfers to be disconnected from the web after receiving three copyright violation notices. But the law seems to have turned the alleged file-sharing copyright infringers into heroes, with the media reporting that one of the disconnected is a 54-year-old teacher who says he has no idea how to illegally file-share, and believes his wi-fi router was hacked into. So far, under the HADOPI law, as it is known, 18 million French residents have received notices of copyright violations.
Websites such as Wikipedia and Reddit went dark in mid-January, 2012, in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), a bill that would allow the government to force Internet service providers to cut off websites deemed to have violated copyright laws. The House bill, and its Senate version, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), are seen by critics as a blatant attempt at censorship, who have compared it to Chinese and Iranian Internet firewalls. With the proposed laws inspiring such impassioned protests across the Internet, signs are emerging that its backers may be getting cold feet. Sen. Patrick Leahy, who introduced the Senate version of the bill, appears to have backed away from the part of the bill that would authorize the U.S. attorney general to block access to websites.