Feds’ Online Poker Shutdown Assaults Internet Freedom

On April 15, a day now known as “Black Friday”, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) effectively shut down three major online poker websites by seizing their domain names. The DOJ’s heavy-handed prosecution of the websites, all of which are based abroad, has made a mockery of America’s stated commitment to Internet freedom. The seizures have also hindered the online gambling operations in nations where Internet poker is completely lawful and the U.S. government has no jurisdiction.

Given that the seized poker websites are housed and regulated by foreign nations—Poker Stars is registered in the Isle of Man, Full Tilt in Ireland, and Absolute Poker in Antigua—how could the U.S. government unilaterally seize their domain names? The short answer is that all of the sites end in “.com.” All such domains are registered in the U.S. and, hence, are subject to U.S. civil forfeiture laws.

Author and legal scholar Larry Downes has critiqued civil asset forfeiture laws on the Technology Liberation Front blog. He argues that the laws are actually intended to punish suspects before they are convicted. “The purpose of forfeiture laws,” Downes laments, “is to help prosecutors fit the punishment to the crime, especially when restitution of the victims or of the cost of prosecution is otherwise unlikely to have a deterrent effect.” Domain name seizures often occur without a trial and often without any warning to the owners, as was the case in Black Friday’s seizure of poker domains.

The government’s move has reignited the controversy over U.S. federal agencies using domain seizures to punish foreign entities allegedly in violation of U.S. laws. While the DOJ did not technically “take down” the poker websites, federal agents obtained a court order that compelled Verisign, the global operator of the .com registry, to reroute the poker sites’ domain names to a government page featuring intimidating federal logos notifying users of the seizure. As a result of the seizure, no computer in the world—even those in countries where poker is explicitly legal—could access the poker sites via their domain names.

This latest round of seizures follows a series of similar actions taken in recent months by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has seized the domain names of dozens of websites alleged to be engaged in copyright infringement. One such site, the Spain-based Rojadirecta.com, had actually been deemed legal by Spanish courts.

Perhaps in an effort to stem discussion of seizures’ legality, the DOJ agreed to unfreeze the .com domains for Poker Stars and Full Tilt to allow players to cash out their accounts and allow foreign gamblers to continue playing on the sites. In return, the websites were required to promise to prevent American-based customers from playing poker games for money on their websites.

The third major site, Antigua-based Absolute Poker, has reportedly been offered the same “privilege” in exchange for agreeing to bar U.S. customers from playing for money. However, Antigua’s finance minister issued a statement last week accusing the U.S. of shutting the sites down in order to stamp out competition. Online gambling is Antigua’s second largest employer after the tourism industry, so it comes as little surprise that Antigua is considering rejecting DOJ’s “compromise” and instead challenging the U.S. government’s action before the World Trade Organization (WTO).

It is deeply troubling that the United States, a country that purports to value individual freedom, has so miserably failed to protect it when it comes to politically incorrect pursuits like online gambling. In effect, our government is bullying its own citizens and holding innocent foreign companies hostage.

Hopefully, the events of Black Friday will focus public attention on the flaws of civil asset forfeiture laws and encourage foreign nations to stand up to U.S. authorities. The DOJ’s war of intimidation may have put a temporary hold on Internet poker in the United States, but its heavy-handed tactics should outrage anybody who values freedom and individual rights.